As blizzard conditions dominated the past week's headlines, unplowed streets posed terrible consequences in cities like Brooklyn, where a newborn child died before an ambulance could reach the mother's home, and a middle-aged man barely survived a heart attack having to be carried by neighbors to the nearest hospital on a sled.
I am reminded instantly of the millions of people worldwide who forgo lifesaving health care everyday because they cannot afford transportation costs, or because roads are unnavigable. Consider countries like Ethiopia or Uganda, where between 84 and 88 percent respectively of citizens live in rural areas.
The ray of light penetrating America's snowstorm was undoubtedly Newark's Mayor Cory Booker, who utilized his Twitter account to execute a historic public service initiative: identifying the hardest hit streets, prioritizing limited city resources, communicating in real-time with thousands of troubled citizens, and effectively managing a disaster -- literally saving lives in the process.
Mayor Booker's success fuels the optimism with which I predict global health prosperity in 2011. Although funding will remain an obstacle in overcoming infectious disease and achieving quality health care for all, I foresee the following successes over the next year, especially in the poorest areas of the world:
- Governments will be able to predict, map, and control infectious disease outbreaks, averting needless deaths and improving overall public health.
- All citizens, including children, can be registered and tracked through an electronic medical records system.
- All hospitals and health centers can be linked in cellular communication to ensure efficient care referral, an updated pharmaceutical inventory system, and increased knowledge transfer among practitioners.
- Local software developers can create, improve, and launch culturally relevant tools to improve health care delivery and communications.
Sound impossible? Absurd? Foolishly ambitious?
It shouldn't. Every one of these technologies has already been created, tested, piloted, and evaluated in the field, across dozens of low- and middle-income countries around the world. A small sample of star projects from 2010 include:
InSTEDD: Profiled in The Economist for their innovative (and free) "GeoChat" tool, InSTEDD facilitates reporting, collection, and analysis of public health data from remote areas to a central location, allowing governments to respond to and avert deaths from outbreaks of diseases like the avian flu or malaria.
ChildCount+: Technology Director Matt Berg was recently named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People for developing an SMS platform to monitor child health and avoid preventable deaths from diarrhea, malaria, and malnutrition. ChildCount+ is now scaling up to monitor more than 100,000 children across Sub-Saharan Africa.
OpenMRS and Medic Mobile : The messaging module these two organizations co-developed enables health workers in remote communities to send treatment reminders, communicate patient data between the field and health centers, and send health alerts to care providers. OpenMRS -- a free, open-source program enabling the design of a customized medical records system -- works in nearly 50 countries worldwide, and Medic Mobile (of FrontlineSMS) through 1,500 end users, has served approximately 3.5 million patients in the first year of operations, including work in 40 percent of district hospitals in Malawi.
DataDyne and Dimagi: These two mobile health experts recently launched "Coded in Country", an initiative to ensure that know-how on software development for the health sector will be locally developed around the world -- instead of imported in the form of expensive tech consultants -- and that new programs will be culturally and sociologically relevant, designed with local knowledge.
My prediction that all of these things "can" be done is not unreasonable, although it will certainly take more than one year before these programs scale up to regional and country levels, and take hold within entire public health systems. You can stay tuned into the progress of these groups' efforts, and hundreds more, by following MobileActive.org.
But, as the novelty and exceptional nature of Cory Booker's response to the snowstorm shows, America is just as "developing" as any other country in terms of creative thinking around the abundance of communications tools at our disposal.
So whether you are already serving your community (or plan to start doing so per your 2011 Resolutions!), I challenge you to learn more about the programs and tools listed above, to support their efforts, and to utilize technology to make your own service work more efficient, and more impactful, in the new year.