A group of Stellenbosch University (SU) medical students are harnessing the power of algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) to raise much-needed awareness around organ donation in South Africa.
The initiative is being driven by Save7, a non-profit organisation founded by students that aims to share the message that every South African has the potential to save seven lives by donating their kidneys, heart, and lungs after they die.
Third-year medical student Jonty Wright, 20, founded Save7 after meeting patients in hospital who were desperately awaiting organs.
“There was nothing more doctors could do for them, and they were literally waiting to die. Something felt deeply wrong with that, and I knew we had to do something,” said Wright.
He turned to technology.
First, he built a website to raise awareness and then taught himself to programme an AI chatbot to answer questions about organ donation in South Africa.
“Think of it like ChatGPT, except it’s an expert in the field of organ donation,” he said.
“Awareness about organ donation is especially low among the younger generation. We needed to make this difficult topic easier for the public to engage with, so we focused our narrative more on ‘multiplying life’ in the present than on thinking about death in the future.”
In addition to providing information and answering questions, Save7 has also partnered with the Organ Donor Foundation of South Africa to allow users to register as organ donors in less than a minute.
The students have also developed back-end data systems that simplify the complex administrative processes involved in transplant referrals and patient support groups.
The non-profit teamed up with VulaMobile to create an easy-to-use referral portal for doctors to refer potential donors to transplant units.
Their goal is to create a system that can easily be replicated and implemented by other students, doctors, and transplant coordinators worldwide.
“We're striving for a plug-and-play solution,” said Save7 treasurer, Sachen Naidu.
This mission involves documenting their progress, analysing what strategies proved effective and what fell short.
They aim to provide structural and organisational templates that could aid future organ donation initiatives across the continent.
“We were inspired by the principle of open-source software – it lays out the basic framework for others to copy and paste to their own unique environments,” Naidu explained.
The team believes that by sharing their campaign experiences in a developing country, they can simplify the process for others in similar situations.
Professor Elmin Steyn, transplant surgeon and head of surgery at SU and Tygerberg Hospital, is full of praise for her students’ initiative.
“This campaign has the potential to boost organ donation not only in South Africa but worldwide,” she said.
Meanwhile, at Tygerberg Hospital, they established the first renal patient support group, which now boasts 50 members.
“It’s easy to get caught up in solving the big problems and forget about the people in front of us. Our goal with the support groups is not only to provide a much-needed community for our patients but to create a framework that other public hospitals can use to follow in our footsteps,” said Naazim Nagdee, Save7’s Vice-President.
The support group is driven by former patient and transplant recipient Melissa Jacobs.
“When I was on dialysis, I really would have appreciated someone's support. Someone coming to educate me about my condition, how to look after my body, how to be self-sufficient, and most importantly, how to handle the emotional and psychological impact that this condition has on me,” said Jacobs.