Computers or Vaccines: Role of ICT in the Health Digital Divide

 

Bridging the Digital Divide in Health 

Over the past few years, the role of technology in health is becoming more and more crucial. Doctors in many developed countries, such as the United States, can access a patient’s full medical records at the touch of a button and avoid loss of paperwork or prescribing conflicting medications and can take advantage of the most current early detection and prevention technologies. A fellow Tulane senior currently works to log data from appointments of a urologist whose medical records are completely electronic. These technologies allow patients to receive the best medical care possible, something that should not be determined by geography, socioeconomic status or any other demographic characteristic.

In many parts of the developing world, these “e-health” technologies are not readily available and the health of the population is suffering. This is a hot topic in the public health world with the United Nations putting increased emphasis  on ICT, as shown in the Millennium Development Goals. Regardless of this international support, a common debate among development professionals is whether the limited amount of aid money for developing countries is better spent on vaccines or computers. While it is true that basic needs must be met before things can be improved, computer technologies that aid early detection, spread health information, and improve diagnosis can make a world of difference in the health of the population. In addition to the improved direct health of the patient, doctors can also have greater access to research, new medications, training, education, and resources. As we discussed in class today, using technology already available in developing countries, such as mobile phones, is a great starting point to create a healthier world. Doctors are able to communicate with each other via phones and receive up to date information and communicate with their patients if travel or time off work for a doctor’s visit is unrealistic. The article names connectivity, content, capacity, and context as the four crucial steps to having a successful implementation of these technologies much like the access/skill/policy/motivation chart we viewed on Tuesday to conceptualize the digital divide. There are obviously many pieces to this puzzle. Doctors must be trained to use the technology, patients must understand its usefulness in the context of their situation, and governments must realize its economic and human infrastructure potential. Regardless, it is something that should be at the forefront of ICT4D and public health agendas across the world. It is clear that the digital divide across the globe is having a negative effect on the health of developing countries and attention must be paid to what many consider a basic right.

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