When a pandemic hits, KAIST's MCM can help, and fast

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When a pandemic hits, KAIST's MCM can help, and fast

Exterior of the mobile clinic module (MCM) installed in Nowon District, northern Seoul. [KAIST]

Exterior of the mobile clinic module (MCM) installed in Nowon District, northern Seoul. [KAIST]

 
A giant, white-and-translucent Quonset-shaped structure sits beside the austere, red-brick Korea Institute of Radiological & Medical Sciences (Kirams) in Nowon District, northern Seoul. It’s utterly sci-fi in form, and to a certain degree in function.
 
Four negative pressure rooms are housed inside. Specifically built to treat patients with infectious diseases, these units prevent the escape of hazardous viruses.
 
One of the biggest concerns mentioned by medical professionals during the coronavirus outbreak last year was the shortage of negative pressure rooms in the country.  
 
So from July last year, a team of doctors and researchers from Kirams and KAIST got together to come up with an answer of their own: Negative pressure rooms that can be built and dismantled like building blocks in days — they are known as “mobile clinic modules (MCM).”
 
The installation was set up in late December and has been undergoing tests since then to check if the facility is sturdy, safe and medically functional. It took five days to set the ward up. For one negative pressure room to be assembled, it would take 15 minutes.  
 
“This used to be our parking lot,” said Cho Min-su, a doctor at Kirams’ department of radiation emergency medicine. Cho was one of the main advisers in the project, offering opinions on user experience from a doctor and patient's point of view.  
 
“Space efficiency is really what differentiates MCM. Medically, a disaster is a situation where medical supplies fall short compared to the number of patients. MCMs can be put to use when demand is high and tucked inside storage spaces when not, instead of taking up massive space.”
 
Doors separating rooms of different air pressure. [KIRAMS]

Doors separating rooms of different air pressure. [KIRAMS]

The insides of this tube are decidedly utilitarian. About 15 meters (49 feet) wide and 30 meters long, it is a patient ward with four negative pressure isolation rooms, bathrooms attached to each of them, two offices for medical staff and a corridor. The spaces are all connected like building blocks perfectly fit to assure that the pressure difference is maintained.  
 
The technology that transforms them into a negative pressure room is hidden in the equipment attached to the automatic doors and in the ceiling. First, clean air is injected in the room and through holes in the ceiling with just the right pressure to make it flow on the ground, forcing aerosol viruses down on the way. Then, it recollects the dirty air and filters and releases it outside the ward.  
 
The holes in the ceiling are in different sizes. This is what ensures the clean air is forced at an even pace across the room. If air in one spot drops with pressure stronger than the other, that itself could create circulation and send hazardous particles flying from one spot to another.  
 
“At first, we designed the holes to be identical in size but we observed the airflow wasn’t efficient this way because the air would constantly circulate instead of exiting the room,” said Nam Tek-jin, a KAIST professor of industrial design. “So we tested various sizes of holes and patterns to make sure the air would drop to the floor and be recollected.”
   
A mock set-up of a negative pressure room inside the MCM unit. [KIRAMS]

A mock set-up of a negative pressure room inside the MCM unit. [KIRAMS]

The MCM is not the first moveable patient room. There had been container-shaped patient rooms or tents to serve similar purposes before.
 
According to the team, MCM’s biggest advantage is that it can be rapidly dismantled to a size that can fit inside a cargo plane, and the fact that it is suitable for treating patients for days, possibly months. Existing mobile facilities, on the other hand, were more like temporary facilities that could keep patients for hours but unsuitable for more than days. MCM’s module options include walls on which medical devices can be attached.  
 
In terms of user experience and internal design, the team made sure the space doesn’t create a sense of isolation. Color and natural light were utilized.
 
“Technically, patients with infectious diseases are indeed in an isolation room, but we wanted them to feel like they’re in a proper medical institution, not just locked up,” said Cho.Discussions are ongoing to select the company that will take over business rights, which is likely to be Shinsung ENG. It was one of the domestic firms that supplied equipment to the unit.    
 
Discussions are ongoing to select the company that will take over business rights, which is likely to be Shinsung ENG. It was one of the domestic firms that supplied equipment to the unit.    
 
According to Nam, the agreements will be over soon, and if there is demand, MCMs will be available for sale by March. The team had been contacted by agents overseas that supply medical equipment to hospitals. Korean embassies received a lot of inquiries asking about the facility as well after the news went out.
 
“We’ve been seeing global pandemics arrive at a cycle of four to five years and some experts say this gap is becoming shorter,” said Nam.  
 
“In fact, we didn’t really think the coronavirus pandemic would be a big sales opportunity, but more of a testing period to refine the product. Korea did well with Covid-19 quarantine measures because of the lessons we learnt in the MERS pandemic. MCM would be another good way to prepare for a possible next.”
 
BY SONG KYOUNG-SON   [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]
 
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