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How do you ensure all medical equipment is safe, in proper working condition and all hospital staff can operate them? That is the job of a biomedical specialist in the field. Jonathan Delchambre, recently returned from Lebanon and Iraq, talks about this specialization and shares his experience.

Why did you choose to study engineering with a master in biomedical engineering (specialized in Biomechanics and Instrumentation)?

Because I was very good at mathematics and science in school (laughs) and I had a particular interest in the human body and how we can use science to improve health care.

Why did you want to work for MSF?

There are many career paths for biomedical engineers but I wanted to use my knowledge in favor of less developed countries. I rather saw myself working on an oxygen concentrator to prevent pneumonia diseases than on an invention to treat obesity. During an information session on working in the field for MSF I was glad to discover that MSF has long and short missions for biomedical engineers and I applied. I wasn’t accepted because I didn’t have enough experience, but luckily I persevered: I obtained the relevant working experience and was able to leave on my first mission about a year later. I was more experienced in conceptualization and quality assurance so I learned everything on hospital equipment maintenance from my local colleagues during my first mission in Haiti. The hospital had a capacity of 120 beds, 500 staff, 4 operation rooms and over 300 units of medical equipment. Imagine being responsible for the proper functioning of all medical equipment. The life of a patient depends on it. If the equipment fails, the patient dies.


"The life of a patient depends on the doctors but also on the medical equipment in the hospital. If the equipment fails, the patient dies.”

Tell us about one of your missions.

I can give you some information about my emergency mission in Iraq last year. I was sent for two months to help out in the Hamam Al Alil emergency hospital, one of the trauma stabilization points around Mosul. I was responsible for setting up the maintenance and repair plan for over 50 units of medical equipment in the hospital. Iraq has a decent health system, but after decades of conflict, instability and economic hardships, the system is under a lot of strain. Many hospitals don’t have the resources to cope with these situations and this is where MSF comes in. 

What does the job of a biomedical specialist in the field involve?

I loved how diverse the job is!

I trained two Iraqi colleagues, X-Ray technicians, on how to use the digital Cassette Reader. I trained another Iraqi colleague on how to maintain and repair all the equipment and I organized training sessions for the medical staff on how to use the equipment. Besides this, you need to liaise with the medical doctors to work on the hospital contingency plan. What if one of the ventilators in the operating room fails? Should we operate less, or continue the same pace but also at night? Or have shorter operations? Or in another operating room? The whole operating timetable changes.

Another aspect of my job was to analyze procurement needs together with the project medical coordinator, in order to have a full stock for the operating room and entire hospital. This involved a lot of prospecting and contacting (local) suppliers. A big part of the job is also working behind your laptop on Excel (laughs).

You must also always be prepared for the unexpected. One day the project received 2 empty containers that needed to be transformed into an X-ray and sterilization room asap. I took the lead and connected the containers to the electricity grid, ordered tables, chair, sinks, etc. and then finally installed all the biomedical equipment. An autoclave needed to be installed in the sterilization room and a mobile X-Ray machine along with a Digital Cassette Reader and its software.

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What did you enjoy most?

I think I enjoyed the training part the most because I really saw the effect of capacity building. My colleague in Iraq had good technical skills but he didn’t have updated knowledge on any of the equipment. He now knows everything about using and debugging the imaging software used for X-Ray recording and viewing; which will improve his position on the labor market. To realize that they are now fully equipped to do the work thanks to my transferred knowledge, gives me such job satisfaction!


“To realize that my local colleagues are now fully equipped to do the work thanks to my transferred knowledge, gives me such job satisfaction!”

What was the most difficult part of your job?

The culture shock! In terms of private life and work content. I went from the private sector to a public Haitian hospital. In the beginning, I wanted things to move too fast and it was frustrating to realize that that was not always possible. You are there on a temporary mission but your local colleagues are there for the long term. They have a different way of seeing things and a different way of working. You need to be humble and have good adaptation skills to be able to deal with that. Of course, you are also far from family and friends. I sometimes worried about not being able to fit in with my circle of friends anymore. But in the end, they always welcome me back home!

You have been back in Belgium for 1 week now. What’s next?

Resting! I just want to spend time with my family and friends. Because I like the conceptualization part of the job, I streamed the MSF operational research day in London to learn more about the MSF innovations. I was very impressed by a project of solar energy to power the oxygen concentrator and 3D printed prosthetic limbs for patients.

What does it take to work for MSF?

You obviously need the right degree but you also need technical skills. You shouldn’t be scared to pick up a screwdriver and get your hands dirty. You also need a good deal of patience and coaching skills, not only to teach the technical staff how to handle the equipment, but also to teach the nurses and other medical staff how to operate them and to teach the technical staff to train the nurses.

I would encourage all biomedical engineers to apply for MSF! On condition that they inform themselves about working in the field. It is nothing like an adventurous backpacking holiday. The work-life balance is hard: you work lots of hours and have little free time. You live with your expatriate colleagues and you have limited free movement under the MSF security conditions in the country. You might not be able to build friendships with all parts of the population. But all of it is worth it if you think of the people we help. 

To the profile Biomedical specialist

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