Although I usually write about advancements with regard to social entrepreneurship and women, I ask that you forgive me as I digress and write about a phenomenon led by a (gasp!) man. (Seeing as how they do represent 50% of the population perhaps we ought to give them credit where credit is due…) I digress mainly because health care is an issue that I am passionate about; there’s no greater gift than being able to improve the quality of someone’s life so that they might reach their full potential and live a fulfilling life.
While in India I had the opportunity to meet David Aylward, the Senior Advisor for Global Health and Technology at Ashoka*. Says Aylward, “We need to shift from a sickness focus to a wellness focus.” That means understanding how outside factors like diet, sanitation and environment contribute to one’s health. Also important is the need to focus on patients and not doctors and hospitals. Why? “In the developing world they don’t have the doctors and the facilities.”
Enter technology: roughly two billion people have mobile phones. Innovators, such as Aylward, are looking for ways to use mobile phones as a means to store and collect data, information and connections. Aylward and others who are working in this field hope to someday connect diagnostic services and monitoring devices to cell phones of people in rural areas, allowing them to self-diagnose without ever setting foot in a hospital or paying to see a doctor. For example, earlier in his career while working with mHealth Alliance his company gave a grant to an individual who had invented a plastic lens that cost about $2 to put on a cell phone. Then, after taking a picture of a person’s eye, it produced a prescription for eyeglasses. “That’s where groups like social enterprises and Ashoka fellow set-ups come in. They create entities that can test these kinds of systems and devices in the field, figure out what works, what doesn’t, feed that back into the global network that we have created and are creating.” However, it is imperative that these services become sustainable. Once the right devices, systems and products have been found or created, the challenge becomes distributing everything throughout the world at a low price that people in developing countries can afford. Although a daunting task, Aylward has hope; “ By analogy, if you look at what happened with wireless, here you have devices that got very inexpensive, and service that got very inexpensive. Therefore people in the poorest parts of the world are now paying cash so that they can have access to information. We need to do the same thing in health.”
However, there are a few caveats to this intersection of health and technology. First is the fact that cell phones can’t conduct operations, limiting long-distance communication. Also, several people argue that a cell phone can never truly replace the touch of a highly trained specialist and could even lead to misdiagnoses. Lastly, many people in rural developing areas are not literate, posing problems with medicine or injections once those products have been received by a village from a neighboring clinic.
*Ashoka is a nonprofit organization that supports the field of social entrepreneurship. It was founded by Bill Drayton in 1981 to identify and support leading social entrepreneurs through a Social Venture Capital approach with the goal of elevating the citizen sector to a competitive level equal to the business sector.