Geeks could save your life

I lucked out last week, and spent some time in Kuala Lumpur just when the 16th World Congress on Information Technology was happening. Sounds like techie heaven, and it was: even Bill Gates was there, in hologram (very Star Wars). But bear with me.

I don't really distinguish my gig from my byte as long as it does the job, so geek-speak is mostly lost on me. But the congress focus on the power of information and communications technology (ICT) to empower and change lives is right up Health24's alley.

The fact that you're reading this would, just a few years ago, have seemed extraordinary.

In any given month, Health24 has well in excess of half a million different visitors – and some of those will visit us daily. Millions of our pages are opened and read every month; and people throughout the world are getting online daily to ask advice of our experts, or to chat to others in the Health24 family about issues on which they need information or support.

Very exciting, too, is what readers share with us. Psychiatrist Steven Cohen, for instance, working with the amazing Medicines Sans Frontieres in Chad, is keeping the most awesome diary of his thoughts and feelings in our Healthblogs section. It's a privilege to be able to share his experiences.

But in ICT-land, online – both the content we provide and the social networking we facilitate – are just the starting point. What delegates were getting excited about was how it might become possible to extend all this information, and all this access, and much more specialist knowledge, to those currently excluded, and whose need may be great.

So, for instance, I saw the dinkiest, lightest little notebook computers so robust you can actually bounce them (though it hurt me to see it), aimed at the needs of distance-learning children, or people travelling in rough conditions (they tested them in the extreme conditions of desert races).

I saw an electronic clipboard being demonstrated – just like those doctors carry on ward rounds, except this is equipped with mobile technology hooked into a central database. As information is entered, it gets stored centrally. Convenient, yes, but imagine you're a nurse in a rural hospital, and the doctor isn't due for a week, and a patient comes in with symptoms you can't interpret.

In the past, you were on your own, and had to muddle through, hoping to hold things stable until help arrived. What this little device allows, is for you to relay those symptoms to a central support of more experienced or more highly trained medical personnel, who will be able to help with interpretation, and guide you in diagnosis and treatment.

The implications for the health and safety of patients are profound; and the working conditions of nurses in rural areas are immeasurably improved. Now all we need is for the Health Department to buy into the idea.

I never thought I'd say this, but viva geekdom, viva!

(Heather Parker, Health24, May 2008)

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