Global Health 2.0: What Does the Future Hold?

| February 1, 2012 | 0 Comments

Imagine a world in which all people are well-informed about HIV/AIDS, travel with their medical history on a mobile phone, and have instant access to the world’s best physicians via telemedicine. These are only a few of the advances that experts have envisioned as part of the future of global health. Today’s technology is driving unprecedented changes that will shape tomorrow’s health care policy and delivery. In order to understand what lies ahead in the health care field, we must adopt a multidimensional perspective of the major challenges that global health will experience in the immediate future and beyond.


The field of global health is undergoing a technological revolution. Emerging subfields such as mobile health (mHealth) and telemedicine are poised to define the future of health care delivery. Jay Bernhardt, Director of the Center for Digital Health and Wellness at the University of Florida, said in an interview with the HCGHR, “Hundreds of exciting mHealth pilot programs are underway throughout the developing world, but many of them have not yet been evaluated.” He added that both mobile health and telemedicine require access to data services like 3G, which are currently unavailable in rural regions of countries such as India and China.

Indeed, the widespread and effective use of these technologies has yet to be realized. In an interview with the HCGHR, Grant Miller, an assistant professor of medicine at the Stanford Center for Health Policy, remarked, “Adoption and use are often low even when these technologies and services are provided at low or no cost.” For example, if HIV vaccine information is distributed over mobile phones to rural African villages, but a single phone is shared among a community, not everyone will have equal access to the information. “Economics and other social sciences have large contributions to make in shedding insight into these behavioral obstacles and helping to formulate strategies to circumvent them,” said Miller. Building understanding through comprehensive research of cultural norms in specific communities and their connection to health is a critical strategy for the advancement of health care in the 21st century.

In rapidly developing countries like India, issues like malnutrition and obesity can often co-exist in one region, causing a double burden. (Left to right: Courtesy of Christian Bachellier, Flickr; Courtesy of Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, Flickr)

Climate change is another significant factor that may shape future global health issues. “In recent years, there has been an increase in occurrences of drought and reduced rainfall in parts of China and northern and western Africa due to climate change,” said Dr. Jennifer Leaning, Director of the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. Climate change causes agrarian crises such as a decline in the nutrient value of crops, leading to malnutrition and economic plight. “These events have a long term impact on population health and disease,” said Leaning.

Moreover, in populous developing countries such as China, drought and famine lead to increased migration to cities whose populations are already extremely large. “This contributes to the proliferation of infectious disease and introduces new environmental health issues, such as upper respiratory problems caused by air pollution,” said John Spengler, Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation at the Harvard School of Public Health.


In the next decade, information technology will drive health innovation, especially in developed regions such as the United States and Europe. Data integration has the potential to move health care forward. “As more data from government and other sources become available, and we gain the ability to mine long-term data from Twitter and other sources, a lot of exciting discoveries can be made around health,” said Bernhardt.

For example, compiling and analyzing all Tweets that reference Type 2 diabetes could help researchers find predictive patterns of Type 2 diabetes patients’ most common medical concerns and health care choices, allowing physicians to better inform patients’ decisions.

Geo-location technology in mobile phones will also contribute to the development of digital health. Bernhardt cites the example of how GPS could prove invaluable to a diet-tracking mobile phone application: “If you are trying to manage your diet, we can track which foods you eat in which place. If lunchtime at work is when you’re eating unhealthy food, we can send you reminders an hour before lunch to eat a healthy lunch, or even nag you when you get to a fast food restaurant.” In this manner, geo-location and mobile technology can be utilized to compile an individual’s data and send them custom-tailored information to promote health awareness.

Major innovations in health technology may also arise in developing countries, where rapid growth of population, economy, and infrastructure will lead to unique new challenges in health care. Miller illustrated the scenario of a country such as India, which has both a large, rising middle class and a substantial low-income population, so that health care providers might need to address malnutrition and obesity simultaneously in one region. In order to address these new health needs, we must rethink the role of international organizations as partners rather than leaders in developing nations, with a focus on empowering local institutions and individuals to develop new health care delivery strategies.

“People who know local settings best are the ones with the greatest potential for new insights into how to address challenges to the implementation of health improvement measures,” explained Miller.

In the end, as Leaning asserts, “challenges to health are challenges to society.” As the world becomes more urban and interconnected, diverse perspectives must merge in order to prudently shape the future of global health.

Category: Features, Spring 2011

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