Technology… Who Needs It?

I have a tween in the house and the other day she greeted me at the school gate with these words, ”Mom, I am like the only person in the fifth grade who doesn’t have an iPod or a phone of my own. I so need one.” Something about the tone simultaneously made my toes curl and my heels dig deep as if they were growing roots right there on the school sidewalk. Need? You NEED an iPod or a phone? Whatever for? NEED, like water, air, safety, love? NEED? We have radio, CDs, computers, and an iPad. She has a Kindle all her own. I am rarely more than 10 minutes away from her vicinity and when I am she is with trustworthy adults who are armed with cell phones. I made her write a paper explaining her needs. She needs technology so she can do research. Well, we have technology already available. No. There really is no reason at this point in time that my tweener needs more technology, except maybe to feel cool for the 2.5 seconds a material possession will bring happiness. I am that mom.

In the middle of this ongoing discussion, I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Why Your iPhone Upgrade Is Good for the Poor.” The article, written by Daniel Fletcher, professor of bioengineering and biophysics at the Blum Center for Developing Economies at the University of California, Berkeley, explains how Fletcher and his students are repurposing smartphones. Such repurposed phones are now able to capture images of human cells to look for malaria parasites and tuberculosis causing bacteria. These repurposed phones are able to screen for parasitic worm infections, to scan the eye for retinal diseases, to scan for oral cancer. Fletcher tells how other researchers have been able to create a cellphone stethoscope and a portable ultrasound system. Says Fletcher, “But with smartphones capable of providing basic primary-care services and diagnostic work, and with expanding wireless services that allow doctors to interpret results and recommend treatments remotely, many of the services we enjoy at the doctor’s office will be available in the field – anywhere in the world.”

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Geoff and Nelle of Mission Medic Air hold the portable dental chair.

Isn’t that beautiful! It reminds me of the portable dental chair Wendy and Stina Bjurstrom just delivered to Mission Medic Air in Zambia. The chair is lightweight enough that it can easily fit in their airplane and can be worn as a backpack. It comes with a drill that is solar powered and it will make dental clinics in the bush both easier and more productive. The article also reminds me of the medical kits just delivered to the Community Caregivers at 1000 Hill Clinic in South Africa. Each medical kit has a brand new stethoscope donated by MDF instruments and basic health care items donated by Giving Children Hope and CompassioNow.

Community Caregivers with their new medical kits

Community Caregivers with their new medical kits

These kits will go with the caregivers into the villages surrounding the clinic serving some 20,000 people. The caregivers are the front line for the clinic, assessing patients at home, assessing needs, providing basic health care and education. Imagine if they were armed with smartphones capable of scanning for parasites or infections!

When Anne and Lee Kennedy returned from Tanzania in July, they noted that since their last visit to Africa, what had changed the most, what they found to be the most shocking change, was the prevalence of cell phones. People in Arusha had more than one phone, were calling each other frequently. In fact, cell phone coverage was better than the roads. One day when they were trying to find a particular clinic, Anne and Lee called Wendy back in the United States to get directions. The locals didn’t know where the clinic was, but through the use of technology, Anne and Lee were able to find the remote spot. Lee commented then on the changes this increase in technology will bring to the remoter parts of the world, parts of the world where healthcare is so scarce. Hospitals and clinics and transportation providers will be able to communicate more effectively. Doctors in the cities may be able to diagnose complaints over the phone for patients far out in the bush. Or better yet, doctors will be able to provide ever more sophisticated tests and treatments while in the bush.

And yet, we must remember that technology has its limitations. A beautiful x-ray machine sits at the clinic at Lily of the Valley Medical Centre in South Africa, useless because someone stole the computers back in May. Similarly, Danny and Nancy Smelser at Tanzania Christian Clinic have been praying for months for a trained technician to come operate their newly donated x-ray machine. People are still needed… to carry and use and protect the technology, to provide the healthcare.

This past week, Wendy sent daily photos, videos, and updates from her smartphone… updates that told the stories of the 1000 Hills Clinic in South Africa. How marvelous it was to open my inbox and see these pictures, to hear the joy and gratitude, to read the heartbreaking stories, and to know that it was all happening in real time, on the other side of the world, but it felt so close, so accessible. Yes, technology is making the world smaller, bringing communities together, advancing new methods of providing healthcare to parts of the world where healthcare is scarce, teaching us about our neighbors on the other side of the world. As we search for ever better reception, pixels, platforms, functionality, as our affluence demands higher quality, we are helping the poor.

Perhaps if my tweener had written that last line as the reason for her need of further technology, I might have caved. A little. Perhaps.

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