I was pleased to see the Economisttake on the issue of the burgeoning intersection between health care and mobile technology in the developing world (the article features a report co-sponsored by the UN Foundation, detailing dozens of examples of the use of “mHealth” technology). The article is informative and helpful to the cause, but I couldn’t help be put off by the angle with which it addresses its subject. Translated with a mild injection of cynicism, the Economist‘s hook seems to be along the troubling lines of something like “Bet you didn’t think poor Africans could be using technology to improve health care!”
Maybe you didn’t. But the article’s lede — “Can new technologies help to tackle the health problems of the world’s poorest?” — should not be a “silly question,” as the Economist‘s as always un-bylined authors imply. Though it goes against the grain of stereotype, many countries in Africa — think Kenya, even Somalia — are awash with the decidedly un-magical “modern wizardry” of cell phones. This is not an issue of “poor people absolutely deserv[ing] better technology” (presumably for Microsoft the West to dispense), as ex-Microsoft and current Gates Foundation head honcho Bill Gates opines. This is a case of recognizing reality on the ground, and utilizing the best methods to provide better health care to those who need it.
It’s hard not to portray this fascinating initiative as the addition of one phenomenon, technology, to another, Africa’s poor health infrastructure. But really, it should be seen as a combination of the two. Integrating technology with developing health systems will prove the best way to improve the quality, speed, and breadth of coverage on the continent — not because Africans “deserve” it, but because it works most effectively.
PS. The Economist also links to Mark’s discussion of the “insect in a box” torture memos. Somebody in the UK loves us!
UPDATE: I’d be remiss not to use this opportunity to plug the awesome work of DataDyne, the non-profit sponsored by UNF and the Vodafone Foundation, to utilize mobile technology to aid the collection of public health data.