Technology and Health Coverage

May 12, 2016

Out of all the different book and movie genres, my favorite is science fiction. There’s something about “futuristic” technology and how society reacts to it that fascinates me. So when I had the opportunity to attend the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise’s “Innovative Uses of Technology in HIV Clinical Trials” meeting, I didn’t want to miss out. As technology and global health both expand—and in some places converge—I find myself more and more drawn to understanding how the global health field might benefit or be hindered by this growth in technology.

The meeting, which was part of the Enterprise’s “Timely Topics” series, concentrated on how using new technologies like biometrics, mobile phone messaging, cell phones, tablets and smart pill bottles could help clinicians, researchers and clients. Here are four key takeaways:

1. Just because we have technology doesn’t mean that researchers should use it. This idea was particularly stressed when discussing data collection. We now have the ability to collect responses through technologies like tablets or SMS. However, this doesn’t mean that we should disregard paper methods. Technology can be harder to use because it may malfunction, may not be viewed favorably by locals, get stolen or even be inaccessible when batteries run out or power goes out. We need to be sure that we are thinking about the usability of technologies and whether or not they truly add worth.

2. Policy needs to catch up with technology / Health technology companies need to ensure there are protocols in place: It’s scary to think that technology is often ahead of policy. Though it is perhaps impossible to think of every worst-case scenario, governments should start thinking of health privacy laws. In addition, health technology companies and those who utilize the technologies should put sound protocols in place should data be hacked or misused. Though biometrics (a technique using physical characteristics to identify a person), seems like a safer way to guard identity because the human body is unique to every individual, companies must proceed with caution and consider robust and secure measures.

3. Those working in the global health field and technologies need to work together to push companies to create compatible structures and platforms, at the very least within country: As the speakers stood in front to present, one of the repeated questions pertained to the compatibility of the different technologies or data systems. Unfortunately, not all of the software used seemed to be compatible. Though these new technologies are currently being tested with smaller populations, going forward, governments, clinical trial sites and companies need to decide on how to make these systems compatible. Otherwise, data sets may not be transferrable and money wasted on either starting from scratch or having someone convert data.

4. Messaging needs to be well thought out and expectations managed: I’m a big proponent of using technology to improve global health. However, I also know that transparent communication is key to growing relations and trust. That’s why I was a little bit wary as to the messaging that is potentially being conveyed when introducing something as new as biometric scanning. Are the possible cons of biometrics thoroughly listed out before participants willingly give up scans of their eyes or finger prints? Are donors and implementers aware of the responsibility and gravity of what will happen if the information were ever to get into the wrong hands? After all, things like our eyes and fingerprints cannot be reset like passwords can.

The conference was eye-opening to the different ways that technology can impact global health. The convergence of technology and health is definitely a growing field that we should be watching out for in excitement. However, we also need to pause and think before jumping into new innovations.

You can view the meeting presentations here.