Imagine what Mother Theresa could have done with a handheld computer and a wireless network. From “”talking”” prescription bottles in Afghanistan to confidential HIV tests in South Africa, technology is being used by governments, non-profit agencies and tech companies to provide humanitarian assistance
around the world — particularly in the area of health care. Of course, some companies will use the guise of “”humanitarian work”” as a marketing tool for their products, which weren’t specifically designed with that in mind. But where technology can actually make a difference is where it empowers citizens to take control of their own lives.
One person making a difference is Vikram Kumar, chief executive of Boston-based Dimagi, who is a Mother Theresa of sorts in the tech world. He helps design software to improve rural health care in the developing world using handheld technology. The software, which runs on PalmOS or Linux-based PDAs, is open source, and Kumar hopes other people will test the technology — all in the name of improving global health care.
His research focuses on preventive medicine using portable and wireless tools; they’re meant to empower patients by helping them learn about their own medical conditions. By using open-source software and low-cost hardware, he’s making technology more accessible to his biggest customers: non-profit health organizations. In South Africa, for example, health workers are using the software as part of a project called HIV Confidant to monitor the spread of HIV among 45,000 people. These workers visit remote villages, take blood tests and give patients an ID number. When they return at a later date, patients use their ID number to get their test results, which are encrypted and password-protected. Eventually, the software will help AIDS patients manage their disease by monitoring blood counts.
In the Indian state of Haryana, nurses are using the same technology to manage patient information for more than 70,000 people. Nurses, who trained themselves to use the technology in about an hour, go door to door to collect patient information and schedule immunizations and prenatal care. The software is expected to standardize health care across villages in the province. Yet another project is called DiaBetNet, currently being tested at a Boston hospital, which will help children monitor diabetes by playing games on a handheld PC. At the end of the day, a graph summarizes the patient’s carbohydrate intake and prior glucose data. The patient then guesses their blood sugar level; the more accurate the answer, the higher the score. Not only does this help children learn more about the disease (while having fun), that information is transmitted to a central database accessible to their doctors.
In Afghanistan, U.S. army physicians will be testing “”talking”” prescription bottles designed by Rochester, N.Y.-based MedivoxRx Technologies to help children take the proper medication. Typically, when physicians and humanitarian workers leave a village, they pass on the responsibility of distributing medication to a village elder. Using these high-tech prescription bottles, patients will simply press a button (which has an embedded computer chip programmed in the local language) and the bottle will “”talk”” to them about the specific medication, how much they should take, how often, any warnings and refill instructions. The technology was originally designed for blind and illiterate children.
The success of a project is less about technology than how that technology is applied to a particular situation. Not every situation is the same; not all users are the same.
What works in one region may not work in another. And while technology has the potential to make humanitarian work in health care more timely, efficient and productive, it’s not without its challenges.