Friday, January 06, 2006

SATELLIFE & UHIN : Platforms For Peace And Health

When I first planned this article, I was looking for a technology orientated NGO. And now I have wound up writing about a health organization that uses technology to achieve its goals.

The Uganda Health Information Network (UHIN) is a collaborative project of Uganda Chartered HealthNet (UCH) , SATELLIFE , Makerere University Medical School and Connectivity Africa of the International Development Research Center (IDRC) of Canada . (You know how I love to see groups working together to put a plan into action.)

UHIN is aimed at "expanding access to health and medical information and supporting data collection and analysis through the use of handheld computers, also known as Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs)." These PDAs are connected via the local GSM cellular telephone network.

The handheld computers are used to send and receive information, and data via "Jacks," relay devices created by WideRay, Inc., a U.S. company located in California.. In October 2003 the pilot for UHIN was launched formally and it continued through August 2004. In May of 2004 a conference was held in Entebbe, Uganda on "Handheld Computers in Africa: Exploring the Promise for the Health Sector."

Over 100 health and information technology professionals and policy makers attended the conference and they came from Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Canada, Norway, Switzerland, Zambia and the United States.

This conference examined not only the benefits of using handheld technology presents for the health sector in low resource environments, but the challenges and opportunities as well. The Uganda Health Information Network and other projects in the region involving handheld computers were featured in plenary addresses, panel and group discussions, and other presentations.

In June of 2004 the results of a survey conducted by UHIN led them to believe that use of the PDA in this manner was cost effective and could become more cost effective as the health care providers became more familiar with the technology and gained confidence in the system.

Over 200 Palm m130 handheld computers with the necessary accessories and ancillary equipment were placed in operation for this pilot project by SATELLIFE and UCH. Additionally, twenty fully operational Jacks were installed at strategic locations in two pilot districts, Mbale and Rakai. The Jacks were battery-operated units that contained a GSM cellular transceiver and a data cache, and each Jack can support up to 1,000 handheld units. The Jack communicated with a server that was located at UCH headquarters in Kampala "by making cellular phone calls, and with the handheld units via their infrared beam. When users 'beam' to the Jack, information is uploaded and downloaded."

The objectives of the UHIN pilot were:

"* To test and demonstrate the effectiveness of this technology for the establishment of a two-way health information system.
* To clearly identify all associated operating costs.
* To determine the level of user support and training required to sustain the full benefits of the system.
* To build UCH's capacity to disseminate medical content relevant to local conditions and to support data collection and analysis.
* To establish standard operating procedures and protocols for the overall functionality of the system."

SATELLIFE, UHIN and UCH believe that the pilot project demonstrated the "viability of this technology for collecting and disseminating field data and broadcasting continuing medical education material." Subsequently, UCH began "developing a long-term sustainability plan for the network, documenting training and user support requirements, ongoing operating costs for the network, and technology-related challenges and solutions, and engaging in ongoing monitoring and evaluation to support both the expansion of this network and replication in other locations."

In addition to the partners already mentioned, the project enjoyed collaboration from: Cerience, Perseus and PalmOne Computing. But the major participant in this project was SATELLIFE.

SATELLIFE's Mission is to lead a "global partnership of health care institutions and health care workers, empowering them to communicate and share the health care information they need to treat millions of patients in the world's poorest countries." And it says that it is able to do this because of its unique strength, which lies in its ability to address this challenge through multiple approaches:

* By disseminating up-to-date, relevant information that enables good decision making.

* By deploying multiple technologies and building health care workers' skills to utilize these technologies effectively.

* By creating local, regional, and global communities that share information and support each other.

SATELLIFE works with over 100,000 individuals in 120 countries sharing knowledge and building healthier communities worldwide.

Additionally, SATELLIFE publishes three regular newsletters, each bringing relevant news from peer reviewed medical and public health journals that they reprint with permission. The organization states that its HealthNet News publications reach 3386 subscribers addresses in poor countries, and their surveys show that their subscribers share those publications on average with ten other readers bringing their readership to a level of 30,000. And this does not take into account that some of the subscriptions are hospitals, medical libraries and other institutions that likely further increase the number of people reading the publications.

In addition to Uganda, SATELLIFE has projects in Tanzania, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Rwanda, Nepal, South Africa, Ethiopia and Nigeria that use some of the latest technology to bring health care to communities in developing countries.

SATELLIFE says that long before personal computers became a household presence in the United States, they "recognized the power of information to transform health care in the world's poorest countries, where poverty and disease claim their highest toll."

For over t fourteen years, SATELLIFE has been a leader in developing solutions to the everyday information needs of health professionals working in communities where AIDS and malaria are common place. But at the same time, medical journals and the Internet are unaffordable luxuries in these communities. Through the innovative application of information and communication technology, SATELLIFE breaks down barriers to information access in poorer countries. They say that they extend the power of knowledge and the promise of better health from major cities to remote villages.

SATELLIFE was the inspiration of Dr. Bernard Lown a renowned cardiologist and social activist who created the organization in the mid 1980s. Dr. Lown also co-founded the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, an organization for which he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

Using space as a platform for peace instead of weapons of mass destruction, Dr. Lown conceived of SATELLIFE as a symbolic counterpoint to the Strategic Defense Initiative. His vision was to use this developing technology for the exchange of life-saving information among health professionals in both developed nations and the developing world.

There is a lot more that I could say about Dr. Lown, SATELLIFE and the UHIN, but I will leave it to you to visit their web sites and learn about this great man and these great organizations.



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