This is the final part of a three-part series. Read parts 1 and 2 here and here.

The World IS Flat

Advances in technology let you bring diagnostic tools from blood tests, urine tests, and water testing to your mobile phone, tablet, or laptop. Healthcare is becoming increasingly wireless, with the added benefit of being able to instantaneously communicate with all corners of the world, track diseases in real time, and monitor disasters. The improved communication results in better coordination of medical responses worldwide and plays a significant role in disease control, disease prevention, medical education, and awareness.

My visit to Myanmar exposed me to a prime example of the value of technological innovations, with mobile phones a critical part.  Since the sanctions were dropped, the population went from less than 10% mobile access toward a goal of having access to over 90% of the country within 5 years. The cost of mobile phones has rapidly dropped, and in speaking with one local from Bagan, Myanmar, he said that almost everyone in that city and the main tourist locations have a cell phone.  Primarily the rural areas are lagging in this technology, missing the influence of tourism traffic. Already, immunization efforts, malaria control, and other health initiatives are seeing positive results as cell phone access increases.

Mobile phones also bring with them education, often in the form of mobile games that already exist in the United States, and provide a fun way to learn about illnesses and control of them (i.e. games that promote an understanding of diabetes).   Regular and reliable care of chronic illnesses where medical conditions need to be properly managed and monitored, such as diabetes and hypertension, are facilitated by these technological tools.  All illnesses are better managed when the patients are educated and more “on board” for the long haul of prolonged treatment.  Mobile devices provide new ways to help patients with following medication directions and schedules, following up with doctors, and also taking care of one’s own health by eating well, exercising, and caring for one’s body. All of this is focused on creating a better understanding and knowledge base so patients and physicians more successfully work together.

One comparison to healthcare in the United States is while “good health” in many countries falls short in regards to resources, awareness, and hygiene, in the U.S. it falls most squarely on each individual taking ownership and responsibility for his health.  In areas where we are deficient, such as proper diets and exercise, social media and technology advance awareness and even provide motivation. It is worth noting that this technology is also used commercially and promotes negative consequences with unhealthy social and dietary habits.  Encouraging consumption of high fat, high sodium “fast foods” leads to the medical complications of obesity, uncontrolled diabetes, hypertension, and elevated cholesterol.  Controversial “new beauty” products and techniques, and even social pressures on physical appearance with distorted and extreme definitions of “beauty” are examples of the negative role that technology is playing.  Certainly there is a difference between definitions of physical beauty and physical good health, for example, regarding body weight, height and Body Mass Index (BMI).  The “healthy suntan” means an exposure to skin cancer.  While these less desirable uses of technology and social media are of grave concern in the USA, such applications are currently less prominent in the underdeveloped countries that I visited.  

That is not to say that such promotions are not developing on the horizon.  Vietnam is a prime example where the benefits of economic advancement and development are posing new breakthroughs as well as problems in regards to health. While acute illnesses are being better managed, and control of chronic conditions continues to improve with increased access to care, it also is posing a key new problem with increasing obesity rates and a rising occurrence of diabetes. Increasing sedentary lifestyles combined with more unhealthy (and vastly affordable/inexpensive) food and fast food alternatives are undoubtedly tied to this rise. So while many diseases and complications from diseases that are now easily treated or prevented are declining, these chronic illnesses, which are also more expensive on the healthcare system over time, are increasing. Similar increases are being seen in Nigeria in regards to diabetes and chronic illnesses, especially in the larger cities such as Lagos.

There is some irony in all of this.  In many of the countries that I visited, the issues center on sanitation, clean water, refrigeration and access to proper foods.  In the US such problems are replaced by overeating, and poor lifestyle choices, the operant word being “choices.”  As these less developed countries gain access to resources and technology, they run the risk of corruption of their generally healthier lifestyle “choices.”  In the end, however, education and knowledge provides the best route to improved health, awareness of disease and treatment, and healthy lifestyle.  Social media, cell phones, Google, and Wikipedia—all providing as much information as possible—will contribute to better health in populations both in western and in underdeveloped countries.

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.

About The Author

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Mark Wien is the co-founder of the Micro Equity Development Fund, a for-profit, social initiative focused on connecting investors with investment opportunities in microfinance, particularly micro-equity. Mark also co-founded an e-commerce site which launched in March 2014. After six years in finance, Mark is currently in medical school with hopes of bridging his business background with medicine to improve access to and quality of healthcare worldwide. He will be joining Hippo as a frequent correspondent exploring the topics of public health, the intersection of medicine and business, healthcare, and microfinance. Twitter: @MarkWien;