Healthcare Delivery to Developing Countries Using Mobile Technology
•German Center for Research and Innovation
After a short welcome by Dr. Joann Halpern, Director of the German Center for Research and Innovation (GCRI), the evening’s moderator Dr. Wolfgang Renz, Co-President of the GCRI Foundation, provided a brief introduction of the speakers.
Kerry Kennedy, President of the RFK Center, kicked off the evening by stressing that human rights encompass the right to universal healthcare. Ms. Kennedy expressed concern that this notion is often overlooked, as human rights are more commonly associated with political rights. She continued by presenting her work with the RFK Center, which is active in championing human rights and helping deliver healthcare to underserved communities around the world. Citing an example of the center’s work, she referenced various projects in Haiti, which have taken place over the past few years. Ms. Kennedy recounted how the country’s disastrous state following the aftermath of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake was a key factor in the decision of the RFK Center and Physicians Interactive to establish a collaboration. The mobile healthcare project Health eVillages is a result of this collaboration. She then described the vast impact that mobile devices used by the program have had and continue to have in Haiti as well as in other parts of the world.
According to a McKinsey & Company report, 80 percent of the world’s population now owns a mobile phone or device. Based on this information, Ms. Kennedy stressed that an enormous opportunity exists for bringing healthcare technologies to developing countries in addition to developed nations like the United States or Germany. While countries, such as Haiti and Uganda, serve as prime examples for what can be achieved with mobile health technology, Ms. Kennedy nonetheless emphasized that a large population in developed nations, such as those living in rural parts of the U.S., could also benefit immensely from programs like Health eVillages. Ms. Kennedy concluded her presentation by pointing out that large-scale changes are not just made by major institutions, but also by the people who get involved.
After playing a video introducing the work of Health eVillages, Donato J. Tramuto, CEO and Chairman of Physicians Interactive, took the stage to speak more in detail about the achievements of the program. He expressed his dismay that one billion people die prematurely every year because they do not have access to a healthcare worker. Health eVillages strives to change this stark reality by bringing medical care to communities lacking a proper healthcare infrastructure. A key component of the project is the use of mobile devices with interactive medical content. In this sense, Health eVillages functions as an information, education, and communication platform. It connects healthcare workers to an extensive network of experts and enables even those with limited medical training to bring care to people in remote parts of the world, often providing these individuals access to healthcare for the first time.
While technology plays an important role, Mr. Tramuto made clear that the work of Health eVillages is far more comprehensive. The program seeks to engage and empower individuals to build long-lasting healthcare systems in their local communities. “It’s about collaboration and integration of innovation,” Mr. Tramuto emphasized. “These people are very smart,” he continued, referring to the healthcare workers and villagers he encountered in his work abroad in areas such as rural Kenya. One key aspect of Health eVillages’ work is engaging communities and asking locals about their most pressing needs. Only then will Health eVillages truly reach its goal of providing adequate health services while also educating people to provide these services to themselves. Mr. Tramuto is certain that this combination is imperative to the program’s success and is the best approach for using technology in healthcare in general. As an example, he described an ongoing project in Lwala, Kenya, an area that used to have an infant mortality rate of 95 out of 1,000. Health eVillages partnered with the Lwala Community Alliance (LCA) and after only two years, succeeded in cutting this rate in half.
Bernd Altpeter, Founder and CEO of the German Institute for Telemedicine and Health Promotion (DITG), then shared his perspective on the state of mobile health technology in Germany. Reiterating a common thread throughout the evening’s presentations that eHealth is not just advantageous in developing countries, Mr. Altpeter presented on the prevalence of problems in Germany surrounding Type 2 diabetes and how patients and the healthcare system there could also benefit from the use of mobile technology. For example, for 10 million diabetes patients in Germany, there are currently only 1,850 diabetologists. Additionally, these patient numbers are steadily increasing due to unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as poor nutrition and insufficient physical activity. Mr. Altpeter spoke of an increase in these patient numbers by 10 percent per year, predicting a collapse of the current healthcare system if no drastic changes are made. He believes that telemedicine and eHealth technologies could intervene well here, as they are the “most effective and efficient way to service patients, especially [those with] chronic diseases.” However, he also stressed that technology is just one component of the system. A crucial part concerns enabling patients to successfully interact with the available technology. Improving accessibility and affordability are two of the main factors involved here.
Mr. Altpeter then highlighted the life-altering effects the use of eHealth technology can have by presenting the extraordinary improvement of a German Type 2 diabetes patient. The patient used the healthcare platform developed by the DITG, which coordinates all relevant knowledge and interaction between physicians, patients, nurses, and hospital staff in one system, enabling a daily information exchange. The result was that the patient went from taking daily insulin shots to living completely without them after just six to seven months into the program. To Mr. Altpeter, this integration of all relevant intervention systems demonstrates the biggest advantage of mobile healthcare technology as it ensures that the patient receives the best possible care and treatment.
To conclude the evening, Dr. Wolfgang Renz opened a lively discussion between the speakers and the audience about the challenges of globalizing mobile health technology. Topics addressed ranged from what the government’s role should be with regards to access to patient data to how to use aggregated health data for medical research while still maintaining individuals’ privacy.