There’s a lot of rubbish on the Internet. Sometimes, maybe all a mobile phone is good for is watching an endless loop of Nyan cat, but people and organizations the world over are putting rapidly evolving technology to better use — they’re using it to save lives.
Health care, with the advent of newer and better technology, is rapidly changing. Digital technologies are leading us toward a potential revolution in public health, which will enable people to live healthier lives and make better treatment decisions. For example, there are a variety of websites and apps for tracking diet and exercise, pedometers, accelerometers, and heart-rate monitors. Digital tools offer self-awareness, a way to turn action into change and to do it scientifically, rigorously, methodically. To do it in a way it’s never been done before — with data.
WHO? Yeah, Them, Too
The World Health Organization (WHO) is one of the main advocates of using social media to manage global health crises.
WHO's seminal social media event took place during the Japanese tsunami and the ensuing radiation crisis of 2011. When monitoring social media, WHO began to notice a trend — people were drinking antiseptic medicines containing iodine, which they believed would protect them from the effects of the radiation. Using their Facebook and Twitterpages, WHO, which has a separate social media team for exactly this purpose, were able to warn people against self-medicating, thus saving hundreds of lives.
Similarly, when WHO’s social media team revealed that people had switched from pure iodine to large amounts of seaweed and salt to protect against radiation, they rapidly sent out tweets, such as “Just like salt, #seaweed doesn't have enough #iodine to protect you from #radiation & takes too long to absorb #globalhealth #japan.”
WHO now gets nearly 6,000 new followers on Twitter per week and about the same number on Facebook per month. These new followers and fans use social media to easily pass on essential information that WHO provides, as well as ask follow up questions about it. Thus, via social media, everyday people are now WHO’s public health ambassadors.
Meanwhile, in Africa
On average, by standard procedure, it can take three to four weeks to send a list of sick patients to a district health clinic and then to the Ministry of Health of a respective country. In turn, using mobile phones to report outbreaks of widespread diseases like malaria has reduced response time from four weeks to three minutes — the time it takes to send one text message. This means that almost immediately, the government can not only warn people in the area of the outbreak, but also dispatch essential provisions such as bed nets.
Similarly, health care workers in Botswana have been trained to use mobile devices to collect malaria data and report outbreaks to authorities. The collected data is then plotted on a geo-tagged map, providing health workers context for their responses.
The key goal for health care providers is to partner with the government and other organizations, ensuring that health care workers are able to effectively implement technology, rather than just provide access to it and allow people to use it as they will.
HP and CHAI have also started working with Kenya’s Ministry of Health and are in talks with Mozambique’s government to continue their expansion. Kenya’s government is already using the platform to track the spread of 11 diseases, including malaria. Botswana’s government hopes to add another 16 diseases in the near future, starting with multidrug resistant tuberculosis. Additionally, PING plans to develop a game-like mobile phone tutorial, to ease the training of new health workers.
As For the Future
The take home point is that social media is now more mainstream and widespread than ever before. People rely more and more on Twitter and Facebook for their news but more importantly, through citizen journalism, they rely on other people.
As impressive as the current results are, the ideas are still simple — everyday technology being introduced in new places and used in new ways. There are however no limits to what technology can achieve. Currently in the works are mechanical exoskeletons, made by Ekso Bionics, that will enable people with major paralysis and spinal cord injuries to walk again. But there’s more — in the future we may be looking at an entirely digital nervous system. Nearly invisible wireless sensors on your body could continually monitor your vital signs, bandages would not just protect your wounds but watch them for signs of infection. Even the bathroom mirror would be able to calculate your heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen levels.
In the early 90’s, nobody would have believed how much we have achieved with the Internet today. With the proper tools, fundamental aspects of society can be completely transformed in extremely short periods of time and that time for health care is now.