Although new technology is essential, social change and social progress depend upon people, not on technologies. Social progress relies on understanding complex systems and the people who inhabit them first and foremost
Department of Health Policy & Management, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health
Is More Technology Really the Answer to the World’s Global Health Problems?
There is no question that technology, both medical and non-medical, has had a major, transforming effect on the course of global public health over the past few decades. New vaccines have eliminated diseases, antiretrovirals have turned HIV/AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable illness, and portable diagnostics have allowed people to get treatment for illnesses they might otherwise never have known they had. More recently, there has been a lot of excitement around the potential of smartphones to solve global health problems. Everything from SMS medication reminders to novel surveillance techniques have been proposed and attempted in various locations around the world, including some of the least developed regions. Organizations like the Gates Foundation thrive on the notion that more technology is the answer to the world’s global health issues.
But is more technology really the answer to the world’s global health problems? A small yet vocal minority in the global health field is beginning to argue perhaps not. A new book by Kentaro Toyama called Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology argues that technology is not, in fact, the main driver of social change, including improvement in global health. Based on his own observations working for Microsoft in India, Toyama persuasively asserts that social change and social progress depend upon people, not on technologies. Social progress relies on understanding complex systems and the people who inhabit them first and foremost.
In a similar vein, Julia Robinson, Director of Advocacy Programs at Health Alliance International, has argued that, although new technology is essential, it is not the sole answer to the world’s most pressing global health issues. Robinson also focuses on people, noting that in her experience, the most common problem in resource-limited health systems is the lack of qualified health professionals. As Robinson notes, health technology is important but even more important are the people needed to implement that technology.
None of this means that new technologies are useless in the quest for better global health. The issue is more that we must continuously evaluate our efforts and collect constant feedback from those benefiting from these technologies. As Robinson points out, simply engaging more deeply with people living in resource-limited settings can yield different insights on the problems actually faced by developing country health systems. These new insights should lead us to different kinds of solutions. These solutions may of course include technology but not without a deep understanding of the human experience of healthcare in resource-limited settings and a commitment to listen to genuine and much-needed feedback on everything the global health community does in these settings.
*Sara Gorman, PhD is an MPH candidate in Health Policy and Management at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. She has written extensively about global health, HIV/AIDS policy, and women’s health, among other topics, for a variety of health and medical journals, including PLoS Medicine and International Journal of Women’s Health. She is currently working as a consultant for Janssen (the pharmaceutical companies of Johnson & Johnson) in Global Public Health division. She has worked in the policy division at the HIV Law Project and as a researcher at the Epidemiology Department at Harvard School of Public Health. She has also analyzed mental health policy under the ACA for the Vera Institute of Justice and researched the effectiveness of semi-mobile HIV clinics in rural Kenya for HealthRight International.