By day, Vikram Kumar works as a pathology resident; by night, the 28 year-old runs a software start-up -- Dimagi ("smart guy" in Hindi) -- which aims to make a go of improving health care in the developing world with handhelds, open source software and mobile medicine:
With degrees in medicine and engineering, Kumar could have plenty of lucrative opportunities. Instead, he's opted for a venture with dicey moneymaking prospects. The chief customers of Dimagi, his two-year-old startup, are nonprofit Third World health agencies. Because Dimagi's open-source software is freely shared, Kumar hopes users around the world will test the technology and suggest improvements in the interest of improving global health care. "A lot of these problems are so big, the more people can come together and solve them, the better," Kumar said. "There's always business in doing the right thing well."
He seems to be walking his talk. Dimagi's program Ca:sh (Community Access to Sustainable Health) for instance, aims to give overwhelmed rural primary healthcare workers a cheap, easy-to-use mobile tool for managing big piles of data on their patients. Initially a Media Lab Asia project, Ca:sh is now in a sort of field test in India where "Four female healthcare workers in the Ballabhgarh area outside Delhi have been using the system to manage over 30,000 patient records since February 2002."
(it gets even better...)
Physician Mark N. Blatt, now heading up Intel's efforts to provide better technology services to hospitals, recently toured China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Thailand and found "jaw-dropping progress" in using information technologies to deliver health care to poor areas, often in more cutting-edge ways than hospitals in the developed world. For instance:
"With SARS, they couldn't track what was going on, so they made an effort to build a population-surveillance and disease-tracking system," Blatt explains. "They succeeded within a year." According to Blatt, China's Center for Disease Control now has a system that allows daily updates from 16,000 hospitals nationwide, providing information on 32 different diseases. How does that compare the U.S.? "We have a paper-based system," says Blatt. "It takes the U.S. CDC a month to get information that the Chinese can get in a day."
Given concerns about the pools of viruses common to SE Asia, this is smart; given that moves like these are the first steps, not the last, this is revolutionary. The developing world faces monumental challenges in keeping people healthy. But we know the will and the ingenuity are there to meet those challenges: there's growing evidence that the tools are on their way.
(thanks Glory and Emeka!)