Written by Jodi Sperber, Consultant, John Snow, Inc.
This past week, Wired magazine held it’s first ever conference on health. The speaker lineup was impressive, and the session moderators top notch at keeping the conversation both moving and on time. The goal of the conference was to gather thought leaders and create a forum for conversation on the future of health care. My own personal goal, aside from learning from others, was to inject public health into the conversation.
Prior to the conference itself, my colleagues and I caught a screening of How to Survive a Plague. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is a moving reminder of the power of community – in this case those impacted by HIV – to make vital and lasting change in healthcare. I mention this film because it unexpectedly framed my entire experience at the ensuing conference, and helped to reaffirm my own personal definition of the intersection of technology and public health.
That is to say, health innovation is exciting, but it is at its best when the population as a whole benefits. If innovation only reaches those who are already advantaged, then we have ultimately failed.
My job is to help with that distribution in a way that gives anyone a shot at optimal health. And with that in mind I asked questions and considered each speaker’s talk with an eye towards how the ideas might be scaled up. So, when Eric Topol did a live demonstration of an iPhone app that can perform an electrocardiogram (EKG), I wondered when this type of technology could be employed by a community health center with little resources. After all, it’s not just cool, it can level the treatment playing field. When Steven Wolfram presented his computational knowledge engine, WolframAlpha, I asked him to consider how this might be a platform to support a more ecological approach to individual health.
This is similar to the adoption of electronic health records (EHRs): the question is not whether they are beneficial; the question is does everyone have access to that benefit. What I want to help avoid is the inadvertent creation of a digital divide that can have life changing consequences.
In a sense, this ties in well with Wired’s conference theme of “Living by Numbers.” However, it’s not just the numbers how they apply to individuals, but also the number of individuals that any given technology or intervention can serve.
To quote William Gibson, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” My colleagues and I think about this every day in our work at JSI, and look forward to future collaborations with others who share this vision.