Information Technology: Advancing Global Health
NBR Analysis vol. 17, no. 2

Information Technology
Advancing Global Health

by Craig Mundie
May 1, 2006

This essay explores how we can use information technology to address major stressors on health care around the globe.

There are three major stressors on global health care that can, and must, be addressed. First, health care systems in general are too focused on acute care and late–stage disease. This focus means that by the time symptoms emerge and illness is detected, diseases have advanced to the point where treatment is extremely costly and often ineffective, burdening health care workers and causing patients unnecessary suffering. Second, traditional approaches to medicine do not meet the needs of emerging markets. For the majority of the population in these economies, health care is prohibitively expensive and difficult to obtain. Finally, the world’s population is aging significantly, a trend that is already putting mounting economic strain on governments, insurers, taxpayers, and caregivers. The current strain on the world’s economy, people, and systems is fast approaching a crisis point; ignoring these three stressors will exacerbate their negative consequences beyond repair.

Our ultimate objective is a drastic improvement in global health worldwide, with a focus on wellness instead of disease management. This type of approach will reduce the negative impact of aging populations, decrease pressure on health systems, and improve health in emerging markets. To reach that end, populations, policymakers, industry executives, and all systems—political, health, technical, financial—must change the way they conduct business, interact, set and prioritize goals and how they approach health and health care in general. Individuals must gain greater access to tools that enable them to be proactive about their health. Additionally, health systems, tools, and techniques must be scaled to the unique needs of each economy and community.

The means to this transformation of health is information technology (IT). In addition to enabling individuals to monitor and maintain their own health, IT can take a great deal of the burden of health care delivery off the shoulders of medical practitioners, allowing them to focus on more valuable and complex care. IT will also remove a significant burden from caregivers and economies encumbered by aging populations. IT can also help scale health care appropriately to each economy, from facilitating drive–thru clinics in cities in the United States to connecting populations in remote areas with medical hotlines and automated health care kiosks in, for example, rural India and China.

Graph 1 illustrates this concept of health care scalability. Points A and B show where health care is today with regard to comprehensiveness of care and the number of people served…