Keep it simple

PC World reported last Friday that mobile phones have helped to ease shortages of critical drugs--known as stock-outs--at numerous health clinics and pharmacies in several African countries. A private campaign called Stop Stock-Outs even is helping to disprove claims by the governments of Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia that there are no shortages of medicines for treating malaria, diarrhea, HIV/AIDS and other serious infections in their countries. The project uses FrontlineSMS, open-source software that I've written about before.

I initially considered this for the Top Stories section, then I realized what I was on to. This is proof that basic mobile technologies are having a powerful impact in some of the world's most resource-poor environments. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I'm going to say, once again, that those of us in the West have a lot to learn from these simple applications of mobile healthcare.

This time, though, I'm going to qualify my statement. As Seattle Times philanthropy columnist Kristi Heim points out, "Sometimes the most appropriate technology is none at all." Heim notes that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was not getting the results it wanted from a $258 million investment in a tech-heavy HIV/AIDS prevention program, so the charity upped its donation by $80 million, but still kept business consultants in charge rather than enlisting public health professionals. Heim suggests the Gates Foundation add "when appropriate" to its recommendations for applying technology to addressing the developing world's myriad health problems.

I'm going to add my own thought to this: Simplify. Keep it simple, stupid, if you prefer. That's what seems to be working with Stop Stock-Outs. It could work for the Gates Foundation. And just as importantly, it ought to work for our mind-numbingly complex healthcare problem here in the good old U.S. of A. Apply this philosophy to mobile healthcare, to health IT in general and even, yes, to reforming the whole system. Complexity hurts everyone. - Neil