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Small but savvy

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Interplast uses technology to spread the word, improve patient care.

By Ret Boney

With a home base in Mountain View, Calif., and children in need of its services spread across the world, Interplast is constantly looking for ways to broaden and improve its work.

Founded in 1969 to provide free reconstructive surgery to disfigured children in developing countries, the recent explosion of new Internet technologies has transformed the small shop.

Using interactive tools over the web, Interplast now is able to provide donors with same-day results of surgeries and can connect doctors in countries like Nigeria with specialists across the globe.

Interplast’s staff of 18 organizes teams, culled from a network of about 700 volunteer surgeons and nurses, travel to 14 different third-world countries to operate on about 1,600 children every year, says Sara Anderson-Hsiao, the group’s director of communications.

The teams repair cleft lips and palates, help burn victims regain movement, and fix other disfiguring problems that can isolate children from mainstream society in countries like Ethiopia, Myanmar and Peru.

It also provides financial and volunteer support in other countries to operate eight surgical outreach centers that perform an additional 1,500 surgeries each year.

To do that work, Interplast has all the basic technology in place, including a website, email, a donor database and backoffice systems to run functions like accounting and payroll, says Anderson-Hsiao.

But as new, inexpensive technologies have emerged over the past few years, Interplast has gone beyond the basics, without putting additional strain on its $3 million annual budget, she says.

About 18 months ago, the group started a blog, an online diary of sorts that ties all the group’s constituents together.

“We did it not only for us in the field,” says Anderson-Hsiao, “but so our supporters and staff back here could feel like they were in the field with us.”

Interplast’s blog, which costs about $15 a month to operate, was fairly easy to set up, says Seth Mazow, the group’s “accidental techie.”

Mazow joined the organization two years ago at age 23 doing what he calls communications gruntwork.

Now the group’s communications and technology coordinator, he directs technology as it relates to marketing and communications, which includes the blog, tools that make the site easier for Internet surfers to find, and RSS feeds that make viewers aware of updates to the site.

The group’s blog, which Mazow says has had more than 40,000 visitors since its inception, contains entries and photos from before and after surgeries, as well as patients’ stories, posted by the volunteer medical personnel onsite.

“With a blog, we could decrease the time and emotional distance to one day,” he says.  “That was really powerful because we could give our donors up-to-the-day information on how their money is being spent.”

With the free technical-assistance resources available to nonprofits these days, plus tools that are becoming easier to use, Mazow says he was able to get the blog up and running quickly without any paid help.

For a history major with no formal technical training, that kind of free assistance has been key, he says.

Some of it comes from groups whose mission is to help nonprofits better take advantage of technology, and some comes from networking with other folks in the nonprofit sector.

“If you just write them an email, they’ll tell you,” he says of his peers in the nonprofit world.  “That’s how I got my start.  Now if I have a question, I know who to ask.”

Technology also has helped Interplast improve the care it provides patients, regardless of where a child lives.

Its web-based Grand Rounds program, started about four years ago, allows doctors with difficult cases to post information on the Internet, including photos and medical histories, and receive advice and input from medical specialists around the world.

“As soon as the case is posted, instantly and automatically the email is sent to all participants,” says Bill Schneider, a plastic surgeon and Interplast’s chief medical officer.  “Responses are posted immediately with ideas for how to respond.”

That network of on-call doctors includes about 50 plastic surgeons and sub-specialists in the U.S. and 50 abroad covering all the reconstructive areas in which Interplast works, he says.

And Grand Rounds allows the group to extend its reach into countries like Nepal and Nigeria, where government warnings prohibit the group from sending teams of volunteers.

Prior to Interplast Grand Rounds, organizing meaningful consults for doctors in the field was difficult, took more time and was limited to a smaller number of specialists, says Schneider.

Using commercially-available software that is inexpensive and easy-to-use, the program now basically carries itself, he says.

It’s a good time to be exploring technology in the nonprofit field, says Mazow, who spends part of his time evaluating what’s out there and worth investing in.

“The most valuable thing we have on our staff is our time,” he says.  “The challenge is always on us to prove to people that we’re spending their money to do the most good.”

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