By Mark Rosenberg, President & CEO of The Task Force for Global Health
Traditionally, there has been a dichotomy between U.S. health (“health at home”) and global health (“health over there”). The pervasiveness of American exceptionalism drives much of this belief that the United States is better and separate from the rest of the world, despite glaring evidence that our health system performs poorly on many measures, especially cost, compared to health systems in other countries. But as the world has flattened and become more interconnected, we can no longer afford to approach global health with an “us” and “them” mentality. Our experiences with infectious diseases such as HIV and most recently, Ebola, have demonstrated that global health does not stop at U.S. borders.
We are now in a golden age for global health. Unprecedented levels of resources are being devoted to global health programs that are providing new opportunities for health improvements. Improved health, in turn, has led to increases in life expectancy and quality of life for people in the developing world, helping to fuel economic development. Over the next three years, six of the 13 fastest growing economies will be in Africa. Programs to arrest the HIV epidemic, reduce deaths from malaria, and improve maternal and newborn survival have succeeded in part because of innovative approaches to health. But despite clear evidence of their potential applications for “health at home,” these approaches have not yet been imported back to the United States.
Mobile devices, particularly smart phones, offer powerful solutions to challenging global health problems. Programs in African and South Asian countries are using a technology as simple as text messaging to report new cases of infectious diseases, births and deaths, and even health facility utilization statistics. In 49 developing countries where people are threatened by neglected tropical diseases, the Decatur-based Task Force for Global Health has deployed more than 1,000 smart phones to aid healthcare workers in the field as they collect and analyze data about the prevalence of these diseases. Smart phone applications also are being developed that will alert to outbreaks of diseases that could affect people globally such as Ebola, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Mobile technologies are low-cost tools that could support an improved global disease surveillance network and also help strengthen our domestic surveillance network.
Mobile devices also have the potential to capture important health data that can be used to inform better health choices and assist public health professionals in responding to problems. An estimated 90 percent of Americans own cell phones and among those 64 percent were smart phones. Smart phone adoption continues to increase worldwide. However, the developing world and European countries have already taken leads in showing how these technologies can be used to prevent the spread of diseases, empower individuals to make healthy choices, and demand effective government. Best practices and lessons learned from these experiences could be used to improve “health at home.”
Georgia organizations have the potential to help make “global health at home”–a concept developed by Dr. Howard Hiatt, a former dean of the Harvard School of Public Health–a reality. Diverse global health approaches could be applied to help address at least two urgent public health issues facing Georgia today–high maternal mortality and HIV infection rates. In 2011, Georgia had the highest rate of maternal or “pregnancy-related deaths” and the fifth highest rate of new HIV diagnoses, levels on par with some developing countries. A Georgia Global Health Alliance could bring to bear members’ expertise and solutions that have worked in other countries to address these health issues in Georgia. The Washington Global Health Alliance has been sharing their experiences with the program “Global to Local” with Georgia as it works to build its own global health alliance–and I look forward to sharing with you more updates about its development.