- Posted by Linzi Davis
- On May 13, 2013
- Healthcare Technology, Virtual Health Assistants
As smartphone adoption and broadband infrastructure grows throughout the world, so does the ability to reach individuals of all backgrounds. Smartphones hold the promise to be the vehicle that will help to scale philanthropic and education efforts in remote locations of developing countries where health literacy is nearly non-existent.
In Africa, for instance, device penetration has increased so much that manufacturers have begun targeting the continent with marketing and outreach campaigns that are intended to encourage interest in devices. Some brands, like Microsoft, are going beyond just advertising; they are teaching targeted populations how to use technology, where to get it and about the positive economic impact of connectivity. The effort, it seems, is paying off. Estimations of smartphone penetration in the continent range from 17 to 41 percent, varying greatly by region.
Expanded connectivity presents real opportunity to make a larger impact on global health literacy by using technology to help scale human to human interactions. Despite best efforts, pneumonia and diarrhea still account for 29 percent of the deaths among children under the age of five in developing countries, according to Global Health Review—shocking when you consider the advances we’ve made in technology and medical prevention. It’s unimaginable that people still suffer needlessly from these illnesses due to poor health literacy and lack of access to health experts.
Although the lack of access is a tougher challenge to tackle, technologies are available today that could make a real difference in health literacy, prevention and wellness.
Smart Device – The vehicle that can deliver meaningful prevention and wellness messages
Natural Language Technology – The ability to understand and clarify human intent, regardless of language or dialect
Virtual Health Assistant (VHA) – The conversational interface, sometimes referred to as an avatar, or virtual nurse, that engages patients in conversation (using natural language understanding) on their smartphone
Broadband Connectivity – The Broadband Commission, dedicated to improving broadband access, is setting a target date of 2015 for all nations to have a nationwide broadband strategy in place, with a goal of providing universal access. It is also working to ensure that 40 to 50 percent of families in developing nations have internet access in their homes by the same date.
As these technologies advance, both in capability and in wide-spread adoption, the barriers that have prevented the delivery of simple health information will diminish. The idea is an exciting one. Imagine if smartphones were pre-loaded with a VHA whose appearance and language were adapted to the region where they were being distributed. There would be little to no device-usability learning curve, because as soon as they turned on the device, they would be greeted (in their language) by a full screen ‘avatar’ instructing them on how to have a conversation with the device. Let’s say their VHA sets them up for success by telling them what they can ask about. Maybe it describes symptoms to the user in order to help them identify what problems they are having and how to best address the issue. Or, perhaps it’s available just to teach them how to boil water properly or educate them on the importance of sanitation and hand washing. That kind of prevention and wellness education alone could save lives.
It is estimated that prevention techniques like hydration and administration of re-hydration salts, in addition to better sanitation, could save up to 2 million children’s lives within just a couple of years. What if there was a better way to spread these life-saving techniques to the masses? With the explosion of mobile devices in developing countries – a virtual nurse that lives on those devices begins to make a whole lot of sense.
Seems simple, right? We know that it’s not that simple – but when it comes to saving people and spreading medical wisdom, why not think bigger?