Learning from others’ mistakes

I’ve had a theory for a while, that developing countries may have an easier time adopting IT in healthcare than rich nations that have a long history of inefficient, paper-based practice. It’s worked that way in telecommunications, in that many African countries had underdeveloped phone systems for decades, but quickly adopted mobile phones because it’s easier to put up some cell towers than to string wires to remote villages and urban slums.

Today, I came across this story about efforts to build electronic health systems. “Information technology is no longer a luxury purchased at the expense of other needs, but a basic tool, heard an annual pan-African government ministerial information technology summit last week,” the story says.

Would you believe that wireless, handheld computers are catching on with doctors in Uganda or that clinics in Mozambique have electronic scheduling systems to ensure that HIV/AIDS patients get regular care?

I’ve heard from World Health Organization officials that millions upon millions of people in places like India would rather have access to basic health services than advanced technology, so don’t expect EMRs to proliferate across the developing world any faster than they are in North America and Europe. But if you have a chance to build from the ground up, why not go with something modern and efficient instead of creating isolated silos of incomplete information?

Yes, I have an interest in Africa because my uncle has worked in economic development over there for years. I visited him in Senegal a couple of years ago and was fascinated by what I saw and experienced—though I had no real contact with what passes for a health system.

And Wednesday at the TEPR conference in Dallas, I heard a presentation from a Brazilian health official about some ambitious plans to wire her country’s health infrastructure. I’ll try to write about that another time.