Consultant physician and professor of medical device technology at NUI Galway, Derek O'Keeffe, has been collaborating with colleagues to develop innovative solutions for coronavirus while, all the time, working as a doctor throughout the emergency.

Invited to Geneva by WHO

Given his background in technology and medicine, Prof O'Keeffe was invited to Geneva in February by the World Health Organization (WHO) to advise how digital health solutions could help with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prof Derek O’Keeffe, consultant physician (endocrinology), University Hospital Galway, and professor of medical device technology, National University of Ireland, Galway. @Physicianeer

Working through his Health Innovation Via Engineering (HIVE) Lab at NUI Galway, Prof O'Keeffe and colleagues have rolled out three projects so far. They have developed two websites including which tracks the spread of COVID-19 symptoms in Ireland. "It's a symptom tracker for the republic, which allows more efficient logistics planning (eg test centres) and the ability to learn more about COVID-19 here," he said.

He has also developed – a free, global crowdsourcing website which matches local personal protective equipment (PPE) stock (companies, labs etc) with local needs, whether it be hospitals, clinics, or nursing homes. "In two weeks, 30,000 people in about 10 countries have used the website – while hundreds more have been helped," said Prof O'Keeffe.

Quickly and easily track spread of coronavirus

With the website, NUI Galway, University of Limerick, INSIGHT SFI Centre for Data Analytics and Orreco collaborated to produce it. The site is a free COVID-19 symptom logging website that will be used as a tool to quickly and easily track the spread of COVID-19 in Ireland by gathering anonymous symptom data.

This means that researchers can more accurately estimate the prevalence of COVID-19 infections and help authorities make timely, data-driven decisions about protective measures. The Engineers Journal reported on the story here.

The website is an NUI Galway and University of Limerick collaboration that will help frontline clinical staff as researchers design an innovative PPE emergency supply donation website to connect industry stock to hospitals worldwide. 

Prof O'Keeffe developed this innovative solution with his engineering colleague Dr Kevin Johnson, University of Limerick, to help combat this problem.

The global platform,, allows local organisations, such as industry, business, universities, and laboratories, who may have PPE stock in supply to list the categories of what they have on inventory of PPE, such as gloves, gowns, goggles etc., with contact details and then drop a map pin to show their geographic location.

The Engineers Journal reported on the story here.

Design of a cloth mask

Separately, Prof O'Keeffe has collabored with Prof Sugrue of Letterkenny hospital on a third project – the design of a cloth mask for under-resourced healthcare settings during the COVID-19 emergency.

Together they coordinated from the Donegal Clinical and Research Academy, which is sharing the pattern free of charge for anybody around the world who does not have access to PPE, and for non-medical workers to make their own masks at home.

Concerned by the global shortage of PPE, the team worked with a dressmaker to design a novel pattern. The masks can be made using materials found at home, as well as everyday clothes.

The team of four medics acted swiftly to create a how-to video and have submitted a scientific paper on the pattern for consideration of publication to the 'Irish Journal of Medical Science'.

Michael Sugrue, surgeon at Letterkenny University Hospital, stressed that this mask is not a replacement for medically approved facemasks.


'Last resort' 

However, given the global shortage of PPE, he said the homemade pattern may be a 'last resort' for healthcare staff in third world counties. “We are concerned about the lack of PPE globally, not specifically in Ireland,” Dr Sugrue told Rachel McLaughlin of 'Donegal Daily'.

“Given than currently over one million people have COVID-19 and 50,000 people have died, we have designed this mask for people to make in the comfort of their own homes.

“Many healthcare workers and physicians have died as a result of having no PPE at all. Working with dressmaker Marite Vilane and Lorraine McClean from the Zip Yard Letterkenny, our pattern was designed on the basis of previous studies.

"We are comfortable that it will provide some form of protection, but given the speed of the crisis, it has not been medically tested. I am not entering the debate on whether we should be wearing a mask or not but we are providing people with an option. Any protection is better than none,” he said.

Polycotton or water-resistant fabrics

Dr Sugrue recommends that people who want to follow the pattern should source polycotton or water-resistant fabrics, along with elastic strands for the tie.

But he stressed they could improvise. The pattern has been posted online by the Donegal Clinical and Research Academy – a trust for the advancement of medical care and clinical research in Donegal. It is hoped that the video will be shared worldwide to support disadvantaged staff during the global emergency.

The team involved in the includes: Prof O'Keeffe; Michael Sugrue, consultant breast and general surgeon at Letterkenny University Hospital; Ryan Sugrue, Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Galway University Hospital; Manvydas Varzgalis, consultant breast and general surgeon at Letterkenny University Hospital; Lorraine McClean, owner of Zip Yard, Marite Vilane and Seamus Hughes.

'Diabetes drone' to Aran islands

Dr Sugrue expressed his hope that fabric providers and industry could come together with Zip Yard and start making the product. “In addition another very important product to make would be waterproof, long sleeve, full length gown or jumpsuits,” he added.

Finally, Prof O'Keeffe also developed a project known as the 'diabetes drone' – a medication delivery service which began operations to the Aran islands, last September.

It has been "topical again due to its potential use in the pandemic", said Prof O'Keeffe. The Engineers Journal reported on the project here.