Oct. 06 2011

Coinciding with the UN Summit on Non-Communicable Diseases in September, Dean Linda Fried was a panelist at a UNICEF and Johnson & Johnson-co-organized event, "Making Healthy Choices Easier with Effective Communication.”

Panelists from the private sector, the UN, and the Swiss government joined Dean Fried to discuss the innovative use of communications technologies such as cellphones and social media to improve health and healthcare in a variety of country settings. A key take-away message from the panel was the importance of partnerships between public and private entities to improve the health of populations everywhere.

Moderating the panel was Franklin Apfel, MD, Managing Director, World Health Communication Associates and Editor of NCDs: A Health Literacy Action Guide. Panelists, in addition to Dr. Fried, included Scott C. Ratzan, MD, Vice President Global Health, Johnson & Johnson & Co-Chair Innovation Working Group of the UN Secretary-General for Women’s & Children’s Health; Bob Collymore, Chief Executive Officer, Safaricom; Rafael Obregon, Chief, Communication for Development, Division of Policy and Practice, UNICEF; and Ambassador Gaudenz Silberschmidt, MD, MA,  Head International Affairs Division, Swiss Federal Office of Public Health.

Dr. Fried’s presentation, “Using Technology to Enhance Health in Local and Global Settings” highlighted the potential for promoting health through innovative communications technology. Dr. Fried cited the breadth of work on behalf of Mailman School faculty – locally and globally -- that promotes multi-level applications and interventions.  These range from the protection of children, the empowerment of women, the creation of social capital, and the goal to make health systems more accountable. Key to the Mailman School’s public/private partnerships and a common thread throughout these relationships is that they are maintained with integrity at every juncture.

Dr. Fried highlighted some of the Mailman School projects underway:

  • Providing mobile technology to deliver key health services during pregnancy, delivery and the first year of life in the poorest district of Ghana.
  • Preventing maternal mortality and improving outcomes with community outreach to pregnant women by peer educators. This includes using cell phone technology to provide a link between women in the community and a health facility.
  • Promoting adolescent health, locally in our own Upper Manhattan neighborhood, with text messaging for daily reminders about appointments, taking medications, returning for test results -- all customized to patient needs.
  • Piloting new prevention and early detection systems enabling community leaders to identify and report child health concerns in remote global settings through cell phone technology.

While there are often obstacles – both globally and locally – to using communications technology on the frontlines, especially for reasons of expense, maintenance, and accessibility, the evidence is overwhelming and convincing that there is value to using mobile devices to enhance public health .This is especially the case for certain subgroups and those most in need.

Other highlights from the discussion

In Dr. Ratzan’s talk about “m-Health: New hope for global health advancement,” he not only discussed the value of mobile devices in health (m-health) but also raised the point that some older and more tried-and-true means of communications still work well in some environments.

Bob Collymore’s address “Harnessing technology to increase health care access” stressed that the right partnerships can often lead to solutions in rural areas and that mobile solutions in particular are the best means for improving maternal and child mortality rates. He also noted that a country’s infant mortality rate is the best economic indicator.

In Rafael Obregon’s presentation, “From inter-personal to mobile: enhancing the reach of Facts for Life messages” he said that a mix of strategies  -- including print, broadcast, posters, and cell phones – all play a role in bringing relevant information to populations within countries.  Now more than ever, we have a tremendous number of opportunities available at our fingertips to help achieve the goals for long and healthy lives.

Ambassador Gaudenz Silberschmidt’s presentation on “Intersectoral communication, governance and health diplomacy” noted that we live in a world of complex systems and one where society does not always put health first. He stressed the need to be good listeners and to form partnerships because no one body or intervention can adequately address the health issues and conditions facing populations today.  Obesity, he noted, is  a case in point.