ICT for health initiatives are widely popular interventions for disease control and prevention in developing contexts, and have been increasingly employed on both the patient side and for medical professionals over the last decade. Approaches of ICT for health cover logistics, telemedicine, supervision, data exchange, medicine reconciliation, and emergency notifications. They are also employed through a variety of mediums, including SMS services, mobile gaming, television programs, open-source software, and even voice and audio applications. Yesterday, David Kulick from the John’s Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health related to our class the ins and outs of developing ICT health related initiatives. The Hopkin’s Center for Communication Programs combines forces with the Bloomberg School to formulate projects devoted to changing behavior on a community and individual level, and has been active since 1988 in more than 30 countries. ICT initiatives for behavioral change, as compared with other ICT for health approaches, work to find “new, participatory ways to reach audiences with persuasive messages” that can transform ways of thinking and interacting to make a society healthier as a whole (jhuccp.org). An example of such a CCP program is MAMA, or the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action. This initiative, which is active in Bangladesh, India, and South Africa, uses SMS during weeks 5-42 of pregnancy and the first year of a baby’s life to inform a mother about antenatal care, nutrition, and even insecticide treated bed-nets to improve health outcomes. These techniques are used by many ICT for health projects, and are an important intervention that can provide beneficiaries with critical information in a short amount of time.
An interesting dilemma facing the ICT for health field is the stratification of beneficiary access, which is in turn reflected in the results of a given project. Mobile phones and televisions are commodities, and the poorest members of a community who made need such ICT interventions the most may not be reached due to cost limits. In addition, gender biases in many societies can restrict women’s ability to use applications; for example, many times a woman’s husband or male family member controls a phone, and a pregnant woman may not be able to view SMS messages concerning maternal health or she may be afraid that the messages will result in an invasion of her privacy. Another key problem with ICT for health applications is an issue that reverberates across development projects in general: their “one size fits all” model decreases their effectiveness in getting at the root of the problem. Mass SMS programs that intend to respond to health queries are not yet sophisticated enough to take into account demographic differences such as sex, age, or economic status, and thus may provide irrelevant and unusable advice to beneficiaries in need. ICT for health programs such as those maternal health applications developed by the CCP have made strides in decreasing maternal and infant mortality, but future health projects should look towards innovations that make applications more individualized towards the recipient. Changing behavioral norms is quite difficult, but ICT has the ability to harness changing technology to find cutting edge solutions to health issues and to apply these lessons to other sectors of development.