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The Health Care App That's Saving Lives In The Developing World

By giving health providers in remote locations access to medical information and literature, Health eVillages can help improve diagnosis and treatment, even if there are no trained doctors around.

In the developed world, always-on Internet access means that patients are sometimes better informed than their doctors (though many doctors would disagree). This is a good problem to have—there are many places in the developing world where a dearth of books, Internet access, and education means that decent medical care is impossible to find. Counterintuitive as it may seem, an 18-month old nonprofit called Health eVillages thinks that iPads, iPod Touches and smartphones can help close the knowledge gap in locations where medical textbooks are few and far between.

The product of a partnership between Physicians Interactive and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, Health eVillages equips medical providers with reference material on digital devices. The main wellspring of material is Skyscape, an app from Physicians Interactive that offers a wide array of searchable medical resources that are licensed from publishers.

The app, which is used by two million medical professionals in the U.S., offers a handful of free tools to users, including a drug guide, medical calculators, and notifications about drug alerts and clinical trials. When Health eVillages works with a partner site, it determines the training level of personnel on the ground along with the top 10 or 15 drugs that they use and puts together a software suite to bolster the free material offered by Skyscape. So if a site has a particular need for dermatology information, Health eVillages can make sure that a relevant textbook is available on the app, which can be consulted even without wireless access.

So far, Health eVillages has launched a number of pilot sites in Kenya, Uganda, and Haiti. A pilot in central-southern Louisiana is launching in April, according to Donato Tramuto, the CEO of Physicians Interactive.

Matthew Linder, the Program Manager at Health eVillages, has seen the program make a difference on the ground. He cites one situation in Uganda where the local health center consisted of a concrete building with no electricity, a drug guide from the 1960s, a medical reference guide from 1975, and one nurse. There were no doctors. Health eVillages came in with three iPod touches, a tiny solar panel, and a fresh source of medical information.

In another example, a woman at one of the Health eVillages pilot sites needed to insert an IV into a baby, but couldn’t find a vein because the child was so swollen. After consulting Skyscape for a diagram of infant IV sites, she was able to complete the task.

Equipment breakage is always a problem in remote locations, and Health eVillage’s high-tech gadgets aren’t immune to failure. For software issues, a simple phone call to a Health eVillages point person usually suffices. Equipment can also be swapped out if one person happens to be traveling back to the U.S. at the same time that someone else is leaving. But efficiently keeping the iPods and iPads up and running is still a work in progress.

The Louisiana pilot will be the first in the U.S. for Health eVillages; like its locations in the developing world, the area is understaffed and lacking resources. But if anything breaks, an Apple store is at least a little bit closer.