Why Technology is No Longer Optional in Public Health


So I just got back from a very informative & interactive event
where I learned about the application of 
mobile technologies in
creating social change. It’s here at this meeting of the
socially-conscious minds and the focus of impact creating technology,
that I began thinking about the real ways in which cutting edge tools
are being used in the public health world.Let’s face it, we’re living in the year 2009 and whether you are a young kid or much older,
technology has been integrated into our lives – both for work and play.
Several industries and disciplines have been traditionally linked with
technology (e.g. science, engineering) however in recent years with the
advent of  the Internet and social media, fields such as PR/marketing and education have latched onto emerging technologies and have been making quite a bit of use of them – making things better.

How are they making things better you ask? Well, they are doing a couple things:

  • Communicating with their target audiences
  • Informing professionals in their field
  • Developing new tools for their industry
  • Being open to the changing times and adapting

Among those in the list, I highlighted the last one for a reason –
especially in the health space. Of course there is going to be a
learning curve for these technologies, a diffusion of innovation.
Brochures, fliers and booklets are still great but they are not the
only end communication tool anymore (and their effectiveness is
waning). In these recent years where emerging technologies have been
more and more useful, we’ve seen our share of public health disasters
and problems that have been begging for a solution. One event
that has been forever inked on the minds of many Americans is the
crisis of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. A tragedy of epic
proportions that quickly turned into a public health nightmare on a number of levels.
The question here is, of all the technology that we had then and have
now, could things have turned out better? Well when Hurricane Gustav
came onto the scene, the online world was ready to make use – Andy
Carvin of PBS made sure that happened with his Hurricane Information Center.

Mobile Health in Kenya

It is an absolute must to make sure that public health professionals
are privy to what’s going on here. I sincerely do not want this field
to be at the tail end of the Digital Revolution with so much at stake
and so much potential. From disaster response to online prevention campaigns using social media to gathering global support to end poverty
– new technologies are here and there are limitless possibilities…and
solutions. And don’t think that since you aren’t a maverick at using
some sort of software that you can be counted out. The beauty of this
new age of digital empowerment lies not in the technology or the tools,
but in the people who are rallied around using them for great purposes.

THAT is why technology is no longer just an option for this field –
there are people who want to see it used for impact and the people who
it WILL impact are looking to us to see how we do it.

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5 replies »

  1. Much of the cutting edge work is happening in China and Africa. A friend of mine Josh Nesbitt for example is using SMS (text messaging) to link 400 field workers to a critical access hospital in Malawai that only has 2 doctors for less then $500.
    This week it is being rolled out to 200 CHWs will be involved in the two programs for the clinics, which collectively serve 800,000 people in 29 subcounties and 2,304 villages.
    Sherry – Alliance4Health
    We are hoping to bring the same program to the Seattle area for homeless teens.

  2. Lygeia – you’re absolutely right about how EMRs can help with emergency situations like Katrina. Let’s hope that area can continue to develop successfully, thanks for dropping by!
    David – thanks for chiming in with some great resources and thoughts. I wholeheartedly agree about the various fields inside of healthcare that need personalized attention with emerging technology. In rural developing countries for rapid patient information on HIV/AIDS, the mobile industry is really flourishing. Will be checking out Reboot!

  3. Andre,
    An informative article. I point out in my new book Reboot! ( free at http://www.RebootRethink.Com), that the biggest change in software technology is the growing trend of specialization along industry disciplines. The healthcare field is too complex for “generalist” software developers. Those software organizations that specialize in healthcare have productivity and quality rates orders of magnitude higher than generalist firms.
    This should not surprise anyone in the healthcare discipline because healthcare has understood the value of specialization for some time now. Unfortunately there are still software firms whose employees work for a bank one week and a hospital the next week.
    David Longstreet
    Software Economist

  4. Great article, Andre. I totally agree with you, and I like your tone of urgency! In the case of Hurricane Katrina (and other natural and man-made disasters) another way in which IT can improve public health is through electronic medical records. If every victim of Katrina had had an EMR or PHR instead of just a paper record, crucial medical histories wouldn’t have been lost–which means people’s treatments wouldn’t have been interrupted and there probably would have been less spread of infectious disease. EMRs (though we often associate them primarily with direct benefit to the individual patient) can make a big difference for populations, too — in part because data from them can be extracted and used in aggregate to improve research, track outbreaks, isolate environmental risks, etc.

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