Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pete Seeger and Government Violation of the First Amendment

If you think that some of us are being overly upset about the recent revelations of illegal NSA spying, remember our recent history. One is HUAC.  For more than 30 years the US House had a "House UnAmerican Activities Committee" which by itself is pretty much a violation of the Constitution. Led by various Chairmen and members who did not understand or agree with the First Amendment (e.g. Richard Nixon in the late 1940s), it ruined a lot of lives and careers.  

In this case in 1955, Chairman Francis Walter (D-Pa) and HUAC were after Pete Seeger for singing at communist, labor, and civil rights events.  I just read the full transcript, which is wonderful and scary at the same time. This began 7 years of prosecution for Seeger, who was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about where he sang.  In 1961 he was sentenced to 10 years in jail (ultimately overturned). He paid a heavy financial price.

He said a version of the following, over and over:

"I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them."

A picture and the full transcript are at this link.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The mobile information revolution in Africa

Most of you are not techno dweebs like me.  However, we all need to understand the information revolution that is going on in Africa because, for those of us who work there, it will touch everything we do in major ways.  It is the same story in India.  Here are some easily accessible articles, the first from today on CNN.  Bottom line: almost everyone has a cell phone or access to one; the information platform (smart handsets and powerful mobile networks) are happening and happening fast.  This enables things we could only dream about before, most importantly in giving ordinary people access to information and knowledge to improve their well being, from agricultural information, to job listings, to personal vitality. 

Story from CNN today on the mobile explosion in Africa

From last fall, the smart phone is coming fast in Africa.  18% of the market last fall and moving up (as their price falls), just as the capacity of the networks is improving fast. 

And a broad look from 2012 on the 7 ways the mobile phone is changing Africa.  All still true, except much more

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Monsanto's latest: better veggies?

Imagine what these guys would do if consumers had a clear, easy way of measuring nourishment outcomes: in the food and in themselves. They would follow the demand and create nourishing food instead of high sugar corn. Nutritional content and outcome is not the metric today; but it is coming, along with consumer devices to measure those.  Read this highly informative article from Wired.

Monsanto’s gene chipper “maps the parts of a genome that might be associated with a given trait, even if that trait arises from multiple genes working in concert. Researchers identify and cross plants with traits they like and then run millions of samples from the hybrid—just bits of leaf, really—through a machine that can read more than 200,000 samples per week and map all the genes in a particular region of the plant’s chromosomes.

“They had more toys too. In 2006, Monsanto developed a machine called a seed chipper that quickly sorts and shaves off widely varying samples of soybean germplasm from seeds. The seed chipper lets researchers scan tiny genetic variations, just a single nucleotide, to figure out if they’ll result in plants with the traits they want—without having to take the time to let a seed grow into a plant. Monsanto computer models can actually predict inheritance patterns, meaning they can tell which desired traits will successfully be passed on. It’s breeding without breeding, plant sex in silico. In the real world, the odds of stacking 20 different characteristics into a single plant are one in 2 trillion. In nature, it can take a millennium. Monsanto can do it in just a few years. And this all happens without any genetic engineering. Nobody inserts a single gene into a single genome.”

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Door Step Vitality: the Antidote to the Failings of Sick Care

Taking advantage of the information revolution to deliver evidence-based integrated vitality programs

The primary mission of healthcare for disadvantaged populations to date has been to treat disease and reduce death. The primary mission of feeding programs has been to fill bellies. These are worthy, but limited, goals. Merely keeping a malnourished mother and her stunted infant alive consigns the baby to a life of hardship and failure. Instead, our objective should be vitality: the capacity to achieve the full human possibilities, the capacity to be a success as a changemaker. 

Vitality is physical strength and mental vigor. Vitality requires physical and mental health; sanitation and full nourishment; personal empowerment/education and care from skilled professionals; and nourishment of humans and communities and their environment.

Achieving vitality requires new leaders with radically different goals, approaches and systems. These must be explicitly designed to transform from sick care to vitality, from expert-centered to person-centered, from siloed services to holistic, and from facilities-based medicine to “door step health.” What are the “holistic person solutions” to deliver vitality? The essential elements include full nourishment, primary healthcare, behavioral healthcare, safe drinking water and sanitation, and detailed outcomes measurement using modern technology from the global information revolution. 

Give people knowledge and control by personal education/empowerment about these elements, with information in their hands. Build a community that nourishes around them. Lift them up before they get sick; you get less sickness, and you can manage chronic illness better.

“Door step health” means using mobile ICT and diagnostics to enable services in people’s homes, where they work, and at local wellness centers, while connecting them to typical medical care when needed. Experience with this model indicates that it broadens access to care; it creates better compliance and behavior-change; it addresses the shortage of doctors and nurses by empowering lay health workers with IT-based protocols, mobile diagnostics, and interactive patient education tools; we believe it will achieve better outcomes at far lower cost than Western-style, facilities-based care; and it captures more comprehensive information (enabling far richer and faster research, including big data analysis).

This model also addresses the growing global malnutrition crisis, visible in both the hundreds of millions of stunted children and the worldwide obesity epidemic among adults. In addition, new scientific evidence shows that a seriously malnourished mother will give birth to a child with an altered profile of activated genes and far higher numbers of fat cells—and a lifelong propensity toward obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Still other evidence shows the key role that insufficient or inappropriate nutrition plays in triggering the onset of chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and depression. At the same time, evidence is mounting that combining medical treatment of even severe diseases such as TB and HIV/AIDS with full nutrition can markedly enhance recovery.

So how do we enable and empower people to demand these changes? The most powerful creators of demand for vitality (and thus key target populations) appear to be (1) infants and children (1000 days of pregnancy and infancy, and schoolchildren) and (2) working adults. If they achieve vitality, we believe there will be large, measurable outcome changes: babies will develop far better, schoolchildren will learn more, and workers will be more productive and less apt to get sick – whether they own a small business, or work on a farm or construction site, or in a mine or factory.

The combination for disadvantaged populations of vitality programs and modern ICT systems holds the promise of effective and highly disruptive innovation solutions, and exciting new business, humanitarian, and ongoing rapid learning/research opportunities. Entrepreneurs have demonstrated successful innovations for each of the components of integrated vitality solutions described above. What is needed now is to combine the best into integrated packages that can be locally contextualized and trialed, producing the critical evidence to both improve the approaches and fuel growing demand.

Once tipped towards vitality, this new ecosystem should unleash waves of innovation and investment at which we can only guess. Vitality and nutrient measurement and accounting for consumers and businesses will be provided by new devices and systems. We will see new generations of apps, tools and instruments, and new places where services are dispensed. Successful companies will lead the charge so they have the most vital staff. All the while, new information capture, analysis and distribution systems will generate a spiral of rapid, evidence-based improvement in each of these. New capabilities, professions and business will emerge. People will be empowered to consume wellness/health services effectively. Collections of entrepreneurs will build communities that nourish, including shifting agriculture companies and farming communities toward nutrient generative farming and land management practices.

That is down the road. So what are the challenges today? We need to show what is possible both in outcomes and cost from basic vitality programs. What are the content, business models, and partnering approaches – encompassing but not limited to earlier discovery and treatment of disease – that can achieve widespread vitality, and do so far more efficiently than traditional Western approaches? How is behavioral health done where almost nothing exists? What are the relationships between social entrepreneurs, the citizen and private sectors, and government that can transform the delivery of health to pursue this higher goal? How and where can we catalyze the launch of the multi-partner systemic trials needed to produce the compelling data which will drive change?

We have work to do – together.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Win-Win: Communications Technology and Global Health

A Win-Win: Communications Technology and Global Health

Just Business (Interview Series)

David K. Aylward, Julia Taylor Kennedy

July 18, 2011

David K. Aylward
David K. Aylward
Julia Taylor Kennedy
Julia Taylor Kennedy

JULIA KENNEDY: Welcome to Just Business, a series of interviews on global business ethics. Today we're talking about ways businesses can use technology to make global health profitable.

David Aylward of Ashoka specializes in a new sector called mobile health, which uses cell phone and other communications technologies to connect poor patients in developing nations to high-level health care.

You are working to educate corporations about the opportunities in these markets. But, David, why don't we start with your work at Ashoka, an NGO that specializes in social enterprise. Tell me how you got to Ashoka and what you do there.

I was invited here several months ago—I've been here three months—to focus on helping them develop health in the developing world, to develop models for the delivery of primary care at the base of the pyramid.

There is a fellow here named Al Hammond who is a leader in that field, and I had been working with him in my last job. When I left the mHealth Alliance, he said, "Come on over to Ashoka and let's work on different models to deliver health."

JULIA KENNEDY: And, of course, Ashoka is known for its social enterprise work. So why don't you explain to our listeners a little bit about the intersection between global health and social enterprise.

There are social entrepreneurs all over the world who have been working on health for a long time, trying to figure out service models for the delivery of health to the poorest people in the world. They have new tools these days, the cell phone and wireless networks, which did not exist until recently. So what we're focused on is the intersection of social entrepreneurs with those new information technologies and then how those can fit together in a broader ecosystem, what we call a hybrid value chain, working with other entities, like wireless carriers, hospitals, insurance companies, and others to deliver a full package of health.

JULIA KENNEDY: Give me an example of how a cell phone can really help augment that package of health.

There are really two levels of it. One, the easiest to understand, is voice, where the ability for someone who is a long distance from a doctor or a hospital can simply pick up their cell phone, call, ask advice, and ask for help, just like we do in this country, where people can give guidance and instructions remotely.

The next level up from that is using it for data, information connections. Wherever you are, information about your electronic health record can be accessed and supplemented. In the not-too-distant future, we will have an array of remote diagnostic devices, monitoring devices, which, connected through your cell phone, will allow unskilled people to diagnose and yourself to diagnose illness at a distance.

JULIA KENNEDY: I heard something about this actually on NPR [National Public Radio] recently about contact lenses as a potential way to do diagnostics. But tell me a little bit about how cell phones can do that and what technology can be embedded to do that.

In my last position at the mHealth Alliance, we gave the Innovation Award for 2011 to a company that had invented a plastic lens that costs about $2 to put onto a cell phone. Then you take a picture of someone's eye, and it produces a prescription for eyeglasses.


: It sends it back to the factory where they make the glasses, and then they ship them out to the person in the field. So, if you can imagine, this would be making eyeglasses accessible to people without having to walk into the city, find an ophthalmologist or an optometrist, and buy them.

JULIA KENNEDY: That's incredible. And how do you start testing these technologies in the field and figuring out how common it is for people to adapt to using them, because I would imagine that's one of the hurdles to get over in the developing world—how do you make sure that they will be adopted?

That's where groups like the social enterprises and Ashoka fellows set-up comes in. They create entities that can test these kinds of systems and devices in the field, figure out what works, what doesn't, feed that back into the global network that we have created and are creating, and then feed that back to manufacturers and others in, hopefully, what will become a more efficient feedback loop.

JULIA KENNEDY: Is the goal to make these products profitable? How do you make sure they're profitable but affordable and balance those incentives?

: Great question. That is really the challenge, how you make it sustainable. Once we find systems, devices, and products that have health impact, how do you get those spread out all over the world? The way you do that is you find out what is a sustainable business model to support them. Part of that is getting the price right, getting the price low.

By analogy, if you look at what happened with wireless, here you have devices that got very inexpensive, and service that got very inexpensive. Therefore people in the poorest parts of the world are now paying cash so that they can have access to information. We need to do the same thing in health.

JULIA KENNEDY: To find sort of a leapfrog technology, if you will?

Yes, and pricing. A key to that is what are the global commonalities, so we don't end up trying to produce one set of devices for Tanzania, another set for Kenya, and another set for southern India.

JULIA KENNEDY: How do you go about trying to find that key—a common consumer product that will cross cultures like that?

You work with networks. For example, Ashoka has more than 600 health fellows, and there are lots of people like that around the world. The wonder of the Internet is that we can connect them in real time and have these conversations, if you try. If you go looking for that conversation, you can find it. That is exactly one of the roles that we're undertaking.

JULIA KENNEDY: Tell me how you got into public health. We were chatting a little bit before we started recording this interview, and you said you largely have a background in communications. You've been legislative director to U.S. Representative Timothy Wirth. You've worked with competition in telecommunications with the breakup of AT&T, so that maybe explains some of the mobile piece. But how did all of this really wide-ranging career come together with this public health mission?

It's funny because sometimes people think I planned it, and I didn't. I just kept doing interesting things, one after the other, and ended up here. I spent about 15 years working on emergency response and emergency medicine in the United States, and how to use the wireless and modern information technologies to do that.

Then two years ago I was asked to head the mHealth Alliance, which is hosted by the UN Foundation and supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and Vodafone Foundation and others. So I had the privilege for two years of starting a new organization to globally take advantage of wireless and the linkage to health, so I got to learn a lot about what is possible and who needs to be at the table.

It's a fascinating area, because there's no one group that can do it by itself. Health people can't do it by themselves. They need to be working with the IT industry and the wireless industry. And they need to be working with the pharmaceutical industry and social entrepreneurs. So it is a very rich ecosystem which is exciting, and there is a lot to be learned there. On the other hand, it is very complicated and these groups are not used to working together.

JULIA KENNEDY: So communication becomes very key, right?

Yes. The nice thing about the communication and the wireless is it's brand new, and so it becomes a neutral reason for people to get together to talk about doing something differently, approaching this in a different manner. So it's a new way to come together to have the conversation. Frankly, most of the conversation is about business models and procedural models and about people issues; it's not about technology. The technology is not that complicated, but the technology provides a reason for people to come together around the table and seek solutions.

JULIA KENNEDY: One of the issues with this kind of technology that I know has been brought up for similar initiatives in rural areas of the United States is that you can talk with a specialist.

It's wonderful to have that kind of access to a specialist that might not be within reasonable driving distance of your home over Skype or something, which is a very basic level of the type of communications that you've been talking about. But one of the issues there is there are certain limitations to that type of long-distance communication, right?
Are some of those discussions happening with these technologies in the developing world, too?

Sure, yes. I think there are two limitations that are important in the example you raised. One is that a cell phone can't operate on anybody, so long-distance communication has its limitations.

The second one is that simply having a remote connection to a doctor is not at all the kind of transformation that we need to have. There are not enough doctors in the world. There are not enough doctors in the United States, much less India, to think that the mere remote access to one is going to solve the problem.

What we need is much more sophisticated information systems that use IT to be the force multiplier of a limited number of doctors and medical professionals. So we need a different system than you sitting across the desk or a TV screen from a doctor.

JULIA KENNEDY: There is also the argument that touch can both transmit information that is difficult to capture over technology, but also can transmit healing properties to someone who is ill. So how to get around that?

: A lot of people can touch. The much bigger problem that we face in the developing world is lack of knowledge, that people don't know what to do and that we don't know what to do with them. So being able to diagnose that you have malaria when you're 100 kilometers from the clinic allows us to give you the right medicine 100 kilometers from the clinic.

Most women give birth at home in the developing world. Making sure they know what to do and what are the signs of an emergency—so that the few who need to get to emergency care can do so—is much more important than having all of them go to a birthing facility, for example. Most health can be routinized. Most health can be standardized. If we can find the people who need the more expensive care and sophisticated care, and then get them to it—in other words, use information systems to triage—we will be much better off.

JULIA KENNEDY: We've talked a lot about diagnosis. Let's also talk about pharmaceuticals and how mobile devices can help bridge that gap of making sure people are taking their medicine, making sure they have the right medicine. What are some of the issues that come up in the developing world that can be addressed by these types of technologies with pharmaceuticals?

A great issue, very important area, one we spend a lot of time looking at.

The first one is access to medicines. One of the big issues is stockouts. Because of the lack of good information on inventory, you find that it's very, very common for there to be enough of a medicine in a country but having it not be in the right places. So some places have far too much and some don't have enough.

The second issue is one you alluded to, which is adherence. In the developed and developing worlds, there's a huge problem with getting people to take their medicines. They don't come back for the refill for chronic medicines, or they don't take them on a regular basis. Having a real-time information system can track that, report on it, and measure what's going on. For example, with diabetes, taking your insulin level and your blood every day to see whether you're taking your insulin properly allows keeping track of a patient, and keeping track of what they are supposed to be doing. Plus you can use the system for reminders when they don't.

So today's system in both the developed and the developing world is an intermittent contact with a doctor or a nurse. Every couple of weeks you come in for your appointment. Particularly when you're taking medicine and you have chronic diseases, what you want is a daily contact. That's simply not cost effective or possible in either of these markets. But the wireless technology makes it possible.

JULIA KENNEDY: Again, I'm just throwing out hypotheticals here, but what if you come up against a person or even a culture that eschews taking these daily medications? There is a certain level that you can't get to even with technology, right?

Sure. You look at a culture like ours, which is certainly not a culture that's averse to medicine or taking pills, and we have a huge problem with people complying with what the doctors want them to do. There is both a laziness component, and there's a lack-of-education component. None of those are solved by the mere presence of a cell phone. All of those are made better by the possibility of an information pathway to and from a person all the time.

JULIA KENNEDY: And even an opportunity to communicate that—well, the reason I'm not taking it is there's this side effect.

: Yes, exactly.

JULIA KENNEDY: Or a place to go that's easy access.

: Exactly.

JULIA KENNEDY: I've heard these kinds of ideas to mobilize technology for public health from a variety of different organizations. You worked on it at mHealth Alliance. You're now at Ashoka. How much communication and coalition building is there within this space? Could there be more?

Not nearly enough. There has to be lots more. I think the best way to describe it is that there is a necessary ecosystem that includes public and private parties, each playing different roles, each of which has a different need. Some have a return-on-capital need, some have a social need, and some have a governmental need. But all of them have different needs, and we need to determine who we need at the table doing what in order to deploy these modern systems.

To be more specific, assuming the presence of an active social entrepreneur serving people at the base of the pyramid, what are their costs, and what are their revenue needs? Those numbers will vary depending on what their IT costs are. What is it going to cost them to have an mHealth system? Well, it will cost them more or less depending on how much the wireless company needs. Then all of that will depend to some degree on how much the pharma company needs. All of that will depend on how much support the government is providing.

So we need all of those people around the table to have a conversation about a new kind of transformed, more intelligent health system, one that's informed by these knowledge systems every step of the way. But in order to make that work, we need folks to plan it. It just doesn't happen on its own.

JULIA KENNEDY: You have a great blog, Gray Thoughts from the Middle Kingdom. In a recent entry you wrote an entry/slash/manifesto about how pharmaceutical companies can really benefit from this mobile wireless technology or from mHealth systems. I am curious if you can summarize that for us here and then also talk about whether you're seeing more interest from pharmaceutical companies in these markets.

: What I wrote was that there are four major reasons why pharmaceutical companies should want to try to make these systems happen, why they should want to go out of their way to help create the overall ecosystem beyond their particular narrow self-interest. Because what I argued was that their self-interest will be served by these ecosystems. I wasn't asking for charity; I was asking for enlightened self-interest.

In addition to removing stockouts and learning about compliance issues, the most important thing that they would get out of this is a massive database of electronic health records. Here they could benefit from much broader and inexpensive research on what works and what doesn't work.

If we were successful in having an electronic health record for every person in the world—one of our goals—and if this record was accessible with a cell phone by all the parties that are treating that person and owned by that person, that provides, when you multiply that times millions of individuals, a very large database from which we can really make progress in understanding what works and what doesn't work in health, not just pharmaceuticals but any sort of health.

Now, I should add, what that comment raises is the need to very carefully build privacy and security structures into any such mHealth system, because I am not suggesting for one second that corporations should get access willy-nilly to anybody's personal medical records.

JULIA KENNEDY: Social security numbers, et cetera. Or whatever they may be. I'm sorry I'm so U.S.-centric in that question.

But beyond the numbers, having a database from which we can research the impact on 30-to-35-year-old women of a certain kind of medicine is quite different than having access to those individual women's health records.

JULIA KENNEDY: Sure. The second part of my question is, are you seeing that buy-in start to happen? Are you starting to see any of these medical companies respond?

Yes, a lot of individual trials of individual pieces are using this technology. For example, Novartis has worked very successfully with mHealth to deal with stockouts of antimalarial drugs in Tanzania, and Pfizer has a trial going in a number of countries.

But what we have not seen, and I think where the biggest benefit will come, is what I call integrated systems, where the IT—the information technologies and the wireless—underlies an entire health system linking all the parties in it, so that information flows up and down the continuum of care, not just solving individual issues within it. We haven't yet seen those kinds of integrated systems.

JULIA KENNEDY: Another debate that you often hear about in the public health realm dealing with pharmaceutical companies is that there is an incentive in the pharmaceutical industry to develop, promote, and invest in drugs that are necessary for chronic illnesses, for expensive drugs, and that is often not what's needed as much in the developing world. That vaccines and critical illnesses really need treatments and that pharmaceutical companies aren't responding because that's not where the profit margins lie.

What do you think about that debate? Is it really reflecting what is going on?

: I think it's a valid debate. I think it's an important one. We've seen significant success in that area. So folks like GAVI, the Clinton Foundation, Bill Clinton individually, and others have done a terrific job trying to aggregate demand for vaccines—I should mention the Gates Foundation as well—to aggregate global demand so that volume purchasing can drive down prices for the developing world.

We are not going to change the fact that a blockbuster cholesterol drug will make lots more money than a vaccine for measles. But if we aggregate the demand across the developing world for the measles vaccine, then we can drive the price down or we can create interest in manufacturing it.

In a similar way, we want to bring together the demand for wireless for mHealth software, devices, and products, so that those become available at the low prices, and at high quality that we've seen in the underlying wireless systems globally.

JULIA KENNEDY: What's next in terms of your strategy to develop mHealth databases and to move this to the next step?

We're assembling with other parties trying to get that ecosystem around the table that I was talking about, in Bangladesh, in India, in a couple of other high-profile countries, and then at a global level. We are trying to get the conversation going between leaders of these different pieces of the ecosystem who need to work together to develop an understanding of how they work together. Then we need to have specific plans to put that on the ground in countries, like India-specific programs.

Ashoka has a spinoff called E Health Points—the actual name of the company is Health Point Services. This is a for-profit clinic model that is now being demonstrated in the Punjab of India, where for very, very small amounts of money people can get diagnostics and see a doctor over a video link. We are adding mHealth to that, and then we will be working with other partners to build a full ecosystem around that. But it is through examples of that kind that we think can show how mHealth can be brought to scale both abroad and, frankly, in this country.

JULIA KENNEDY: Why are India and Bangladesh good places to start?

They have excellent wireless coverage. They have massive needs in this area. And they have very, very strong in-country leadership. There are very strong NGOs in both countries that want to be involved. There are very strong Ashoka fellows that want to be involved. As I mentioned, there is a Health Point Services, which is an Ashoka spinoff, a social business, in India. We have very, very strong interest in both countries in taking advantage of this, both for rural areas but also for the urban poor.

JULIA KENNEDY: When you were at mHealth, you partnered with Health Point Services back in 2009, right? How have you seen that kind of take off over the last couple of years?

DAVID AYLWARD: It's very interesting. That's why I came here, because I already knew about them. They have developed a for-profit, successful model combining the sale of clean water and health services. I think one of the insights that we and others are having is that we need to be focused on more than health care. We need to be focused on wellness, keeping people well. So combining clean water with health for starters was a good model. Finding a for-profit model that works addresses the sustainability issue. So, for both reasons, I was attracted to working with these folks.

JULIA KENNEDY: I can imagine you have to be measuring the impact to look and see if you can scale this elsewhere.

Yes. You are really trying to measure two impacts. You're trying to measure the health impact, on the one hand, but also the economic impact, on the other. If you have a model that is making money, that is supporting itself, almost by definition it has the possibilities of scaling. So part of this is how to figure out that side of the equation, while we're working with global and regional experts on the health side.

JULIA KENNEDY: Why public health? Why does this speak to you? Why have you stayed in it, and why are you passionate about it?

I have always been passionate about the power of information technologies to improve society. That is really the thread that runs throughout my career, from understanding the value of opening up to the very powerful forces of competition, opening up our market to that in the 1970s and 1980s when we used to have a monopoly here. We've seen the power of that globally. Having more than one provider of wireless in most of these countries is the reason that we have this wireless revolution across the world, that unleashing of competition.

About 15 years ago, I got interested in the application in emergency response in medicine and saw what was possible. And today, globally, we have this enormous challenge of chronic disease, on the one hand, which is challenging the United States and developed countries. At the same time we have in the developing world the problem of access to quality medicine.

The old systems simply cannot work. They are not going to work. So there is an opportunity to apply to this new problem of the tidal wave of chronic disease, and the old problem of access to medicine from these new technologies. That is very, very exciting to me.

JULIA KENNEDY: After listening to you for half an hour, it's exciting to me, too. Thank you so much for explaining it and for coming onto Just Business.

: Thank you very much.

Read More: Business, Development, Ethics in Business, Global Public Health, Technology, World Poverty, Global

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why Pharma should invest in delivering mHealth

There are at least two global industries that share the vision of a powerful, integrated and interoperable, person-based, digital health system — powered by the wireless explosion — that touches every person in rural areas and slums in the world (particularly the billions of people in developing countries). These are the wireless and the pharmaceutical industries.

It won’t just happen. Pharma needs to invest in the systems vision for mHealth.

Most people would not scratch their heads about that assertion regarding wireless. But pharma?

Yes, pharma.

As the Executive Director of the mHealth Alliance for the past two years, I focused on how to get mHealth designed and deployed in the most impactful way possible. One part of that mission was looking for those businesses that might help lead this transformation and why they might do so in their own business interests – not just for PR or charity. I became increasingly convinced that the pharmaceutical industry should benefit enormously from the success of mHealth in four ways, described below.

But it won’t just happen. The US is a perfect example of the horrible that happen with willy-nilly investment in digital technology. Pharma needs to invest in the systems vision. Concurrently, those of us seeking to improve health for disadvantaged people would do well to overcome whatever suspicions we might have about drug companies and seek some common ground.

The first area of major intersection between mHealth and pharma is supply chain. This is a terrible problem for public health providers. Drug stock-outs are absurdly common, even when the aggregate supply in a country is sufficient. For much of the developing world, companies don’t know where their products are flowing, or at what price (nor do public health leaders). Simple data tracking using mobile devices is already proving to be the solution for both sets of problems, for example, SMS for Life has had a major positive impact on stock-outs of anti-malarials in Tanzania.

Those of us seeking to improve health for disadvantaged people would do well to overcome whatever suspicions we might have about drug companies and seek some common ground

In the future, mHealth can be used to prevent corruption, the paying of bribes to get quality drugs that should be available, or overpaying. People will be able to check prices as well as pay by cell phone, thus taking cash out of the transaction, and reducing transaction costs and opportunities for corruption.

The second area is quality. Counterfeiting is an enormous and very dangerous health problem. Across the developing world, very high percentages of drugs are fake or adulterated. The US-based Center for Medicines in the Public Interest projected a few years ago that by the end of last year, US $75 billion worth of counterfeit drugs would be sold annually.

A recent report said that more than 13 key anti-malarials in Ghana were substandard or counterfeit.

Counterfeit drugs damage people’s health; they also harm corporate brands and reputations. A handful of innovative mHealth solutions are being adopted that allow providers and consumers to use their cell phones to find out immediately if a drug is genuine.

See and Both emerged from sub-Saharan Africa.
The third area where the pharmaceutical industry stands to benefit enormously from the success of mHealth is adherence. Both public health and drug company profits suffer because high percentages of patients do not comply with their drug regimens.

The following is one of thousands of articles written on the subject.

Some don’t fill the prescription initially; others don’t get refills. Some stop when they feel better. We don’t have the answers yet, but experts are excited about using the new wireless pathway to people to measure and improve compliance, both directly and through social networks and reminders. The key to figuring out what improves compliance is a lot of field tests and research, which are much easier to do if the fourth key interest of pharma in mHealth (an electronic record systems tracking all of a person’s health events and information) is in place.

The fourth area is usage. A core component of any digital/mHealth system has to be a record of who the patients are, what issues they have, what is done for them, and what the outcomes are – in other words, a personal, persistent, comprehensive electronic health record. A primary goal of mHealth initiatives is to get systems deployed at scale so that hundreds of millions of people in emerging economies have electronic health records (EHR), accessible to them and their providers through cell phones as well as computers.

Simple mHealth systems can have a major positive impact on the delivery of care by linking an EHR to relatively simple features like a calendar, reminder messages, patient interview/screening templates and checklists. In most developing countries, the absence of legacy health information technology systems means that these new systems could capture a patient’s record in its entirety, not merely the slices and dices available in the developed world from any single source.

The byproduct of this more efficient care system will be an enormous amount of extremely valuable data about health. And that will be end-to-end data about patients, unlike the US, where our entirely balkanized system (each doctor, lab and hospital have their own paper or electronic data silo on the patient) makes it difficult or impossible to get the full picture for one patient, much less millions. We will have to establish policies and systems to properly anonymize this data to protect privacy.

From a researcher’s point of view, whether they are an academic, a WHO specialist, or a pharmaceutical developer, this will create a gold mine of data on actions and outcomes that can be reviewed efficiently, effectively in real time. Very large test cohorts can be created cheaply and rapidly.

We are excited because this basic mHealth system will allow us to learn which interventions work and which don’t, and learn fast (e.g. how we can motivate people to take all their pills correctly). We will be able to establish systems of continuous improvement using our operations data – just like every other serious enterprise in the world. We won’t have to spend large amounts of additional money creating tests and special test data. Most importantly, we won’t have to wait years for analysis as we do today.

Pharma can piggy back on systems delivering care, and get appropriate usage and outcome data about patients

And pharma? They will get the same benefits. They spend large amounts of money to achieve equivalent results today: creating field trials, and buying usage data of various kinds from disparate sources. But here they can piggy back on systems delivering care, and get appropriate usage and outcome data about patients. (Obviously, policies and systems will have to be put in place to protect individual rights.) This is particularly important as the costs of research/trials are rising just as the need to replace blockbuster drugs with expiring patents becomes more acute.

In the future, I imagine pharma will be just one of several important business players in the digital health eco-system at the base of the pyramid. In the future, they will probably be happy to pay substantial sums to others for appropriate anonymized data for research, thus contributing to sustainable systems.

But today, if I were pharma, I would adopt a much more activist “make it happen” role to ensure that these integrated, interoperable systems are developed and deployed. Those of us who care about health at the base of the pyramid have some very good reasons to work with the pharmaceutical industry as one of the critical initial investors in these promising new technologies.


I wrote these comments at the request of SARPAM, a neat organization funded by the UK foreign aid agency focused on public health in Africa. Check out their website.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The New Economy Movement

Gar Alperovitz just wrote an interesting article in the June 13 issue of the Nation about how growth economics needs to be re-thought in the face of environmental crisis and distributional inequities.

Here is a link to the article.

This is worth reading as a survey of interesting experiments going on in the US. And there are some very interesting ideas here, e.g. new forms of measuring GDP that measure all the real costs of production, versus allowing many companies to export many of their costs onto society in the form of pollution, abuse of workers, etc. That would be worth funding, and then making a big deal issuing restatements of financials for large international companies every quarter based on this green, sustainable standard. “If you really paid the real costs of your business, you would have lost money” etc. This would infuriate some companies and get others to respond.

I find the article lacking in three important areas:

a. 1. It dismisses the incredibly powerful wealth creation engine of capitalism as if that argument is not worth having. I think it is worth having a serious discussion as to whether a combination of regulation to make production reflect its actual costs (e.g. taxing they type of energy used to cover the costs of global warming), and redistributional taxation (to eliminate inequalities, within countries and between countries), might capture the obvious wealth generation benefits of capitalism, while cutting its costs.

b. 2. It only implicitly talks about the elephant in the room: convincing the top half of Americans to live with less, and the bottom half not to aspire to more than that. I have helped establish and run worker-owned companies. Merely changing ownership doesn’t change motives. There is a fundamental value change that has to happen related to the sizes of our houses, cars and closets. How do we do begin that conversation?

c. 3. Most important, the article is entirely US-centric, and thus North/developed country-specific. It mentions a British group once in passing. A good socialist like Gar needs to remember the International. Seriously, how can we think about the developing world? The answer that poor villagers in India and Mali should be happy with Jeffersonian sustainable rural agriculture won’t fly. That pure capitalism has just delivered wireless communications into the hands of most people world wide might give us pause here. However, that happened in part due to a leap frog (over wired communications). In the same way that we are pursuing leapfrogging the western system in health for these countries, using the new information and communications technologies, maybe the absence of entrenched traditional corporate structures presents an emerging economy option to leap frog destructive, unsustainable practices (although India and China appear to say “no”).

Who are the serious people like Gar Alperovitz working on this for the developing world?