By Stephen MacKay
The Ebola crisis in West Africa has presented a number of challenges to agencies such as Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) who have spent the last year working to stop the outbreak and to treat those affected by it. The virus was first identified in 1976, but it was not until the start of the current epidemic that Ebola began to receive widespread attention. Before then, MSF was one of the few organizations with significant hands-on experience treating the disease, and much of the practical knowledge about patient care and risk management in Ebola operations was held by those who had been previously involved in earlier outbreaks.
The unprecedented nature of the ongoing emergency in West Africa has exposed the limited extent to which that expertise has been shared. The sheer breadth of the outbreak has required more personnel in higher volumes than any previous response to the disease, and both the risks and the arduous nature of working in an Ebola context has meant that international healthcare workers must work for shorter rotations in the field. As the Ebola crisis developed over the summer of 2014, a potentially dangerous knowledge gap became evident — more people were desperately needed to help respond, but the risks of the disease made it necessary to ensure they were adequately trained about it.
'It was a huge challenge for the organization. We wondered if we could help by finding a way to get more people effectively trained more quickly'
It was this knowledge gap that caught the attention of MSF Canada’s Program Unit, an innovation team based in the organization’s Toronto office. “Reports from the field were getting worse by the day,” says Fabien Schneider, the unit’s manager. “MSF’s human resources were under an immense strain, and here weren’t enough Ebola-experienced people to go to the field. It was a huge challenge for the organization. We wondered if we could help by finding a way to get more people effectively trained more quickly.”
Trainings for MSF field workers headed to the Ebola zone were already being conducted, but they could not be provided often enough to replenish the pool of qualified staff. The Program Unit began working with colleagues in Europe to develop an online briefing tool designed to address the shortfall.
“The overall vision was to adapt all the key information typically offered face-to-face to an online learning environment,” says Dominique Giguère, the unit’s senior instructional designer. The tool, known as an eBriefing, would not replace the existing face-to-face training, but would be used as a jump start, enabling staff to become familiar with Ebola safety protocols more quickly. It could also be used as a refresher for staff already in the field and a curriculum guide to equip staff trainers with knowledge they could share with colleagues and community members.
Given the pressures in the field, the development team knew time was of the essence. “The project plan had extremely tight delivery times for each step,” says Giguère. “We were all determined to deliver.”
Small steps, big differences
By late October, the eBriefing was made available for the first time. Demand was immediate, not only from within MSF, but from other organizations on the ground in West Africa. USB drives containing the course material were shared with front-line response teams working in places where the internet was not available.
Patrick Robitaille, an MSF field coordinator from Montreal who recently returned from six weeks in Sierra Leone, where he was part of MSF’s Ebola response team in Freetown, was able to make use of the training tool before he left for Africa — something he says helped prepare him for work in a context that was unlike any of his previous MSF experiences. “I was much better prepared for the training I had in Europe,” he says. “I’m very grateful, because I had limited time to become familiar with a disease that many of us knew little about, one that requires expert management in the field because of the transmission risks.”
As Robitaille points out, small changes in the way MSF adapts to new crises such as Ebola can have an impact. “There is still a lot to be done in order to integrate the eBriefing model into our practices, but this tool has already made a difference in the field,” he says. “It’s a great way to increase knowledge, especially when training time is lacking. In an emergency such as Ebola, that knowledge is crucial.”
Stephen MacKay is the Program Unit coordinator at MSF Canada. This article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Dispatches, the MSF Canada magazine.