Health Technology in the Un-Wired World

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This post is part of our new series on digital health education, in which we inspect the impact of technology in delivering important healthcare information to various parties, from populations in developing countries, to students attending med school.

By Sven Larsen (@zemoga)

Got a cool new toy? We here at Zemoga and Palio can make you something awesome for it. A game for the latest browser? A mobile app for your iPhone? A game for Facebook? A desktop widget? No problem.

It’s fun to push the boundaries of the latest capabilities. It can win awards, sure, but moreover, it can help cutting-edge people in a fast-paced society manage their health more efficiently and completely. This kind of creativity can be wonderful.

The thing is, though, it does have its limits. What about the people who don’t have the latest cool gear – or the places where that stuff won’t work? Where you can’t get it, can’t plug it in, can’t get service, can’t get a network? Could we also be using our expertise to be creating services to help healthcare for people and places that don’t have a digital infrastructure? Is that even possible?

The recent earthquakes in Chile and Haiti have put into grim relief how bad things can get when the already not-robust backbone of a developing nation is hit with a knockout punch, so clearly the need is there. The moral argument is obvious. And the potential is tremendous.

Often, these same technologies that we love playing with are vilified for distancing us from each other. Texting when you could be talking. Playing Farmville on Facebook when you could be living life. Staring at a screen instead of moving, acting, living. But how can these same technologies be used not to distance us from each other and from the realities that non-First-World people handle every day, but to enable us to offer them ways to improve their lives without negating those realities?

  • Skype enables not only free voice, but free video communications – a fun trick when you’re catching up with friends, but a life-saving possibility when you’re able to videoconference a specialist to coach a local physician through a diagnosis or a procedure. Telecommunications can be extremely valuable. But can our digital work provide on-the-ground capabilities in addition to linking local physicians to distant experts and facilities?
  • Since 2003, the World Health Organization has called SMS-based compliance programs best-practice work. Since landline telephones were never prevalent in many countries, mobile phones are far more common, and therefore, SMS health reminders are not only easy and inexpensive, but can reach a very high proportion of the population.
  • Perhaps one of the most exciting resources online is Columbia University’s New Media and Development wiki – exciting not only in the information that it contains, but in the potential that it represents. It was created as a repository of ideas by 27 members of a graduate school class, but it screams out for a larger scale. Conceptual organizations like the Path of the Blue Eye are trying to join bright minds in collaboration. If we brought minds like that together on problems like these, where could we end? How could we be stopped?
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