the best solution is a human solution

Technology solutions in health are sexy.

I’m married to an IT guy. He loves data, metadata, apps that give him data, and numbers in general.  When I was in labour with our youngest son 11 years ago, the nurses hooked me up to a fetal monitoring machine to gather data about my contractions.  My dear husband sat with his back to me, mesmerized by that machine, and all its numbers, lights and beeping.  He would announce every few minutes, “Sue, there is a contraction coming!”

And unmedicated me said:  I KNOW THERE IS A CONTRACTION COMING.   I CAN FEEL IT.  (Yes, I did speak to him in all caps).  Being connected to that damn machine meant I could not walk around and was detained flat on my back.  I knew this was a stupid thing to do to a labouring woman.  I begged the nurses to unhook me, so I could walk around and get labour going naturally, through the good ole method of hiking up and down the hospital hallways.  It worked, and soon afterwards a son was born.

Health professionals are mesmerized by numbers, light and beeping too.  I wish there was as much attention given to interpersonal relationships in health as there is to technology.  I’ve been knocked on the head three times in the past few months, being reminded that often times the best solution is the human solution.  Once was at Hacking Health, where the Wayfinding Group won a Hacking Health Award, not for a shiny new app to help patients navigate the hospital corridors, but for a human solution:  engaging hospital volunteers to escort patients to their destinations in the hospital.  Then I saw a TED talk by Jane Chen, about baby warmers in India, where she said, technology powered by love can change the world.

I was reminded of the human solution again at the Canadian Health College of Health Leaders event last Thursday.  It featured Alberta Health’s Deputy Minister, who said, health care is fundamentally about interpersonal relationships, …and we have lost sight of that.

The other speaker at the breakfast event was Tim Barlott, who is an Occupational Therapist, clinical instructor and researcher.  He shared his fascinating experience with a project called El Enlace (The Link) in Colombia.  The premise of the work was to harness technology to reach out to people with disabilities and their caregivers to decrease social exclusion.

Of course, because my son has Down syndrome, the concept of social exclusion is dear to my heart.  Although we struggle with building a community for Aaron, Tim reminded me that life for people with disabilities in other cultures is very very hard.  In Colombia, people with disabilities, and their caregivers, are stigmatized.  Many people have not left their home for years.  Their lives can be lonely, socially isolating and stagnant.

The El Enlace project used low cost technology to connect people together.  They smartly took a look at what use of technology would work best for people and their caregivers – and in Colombia, that was text messaging through mobile phones.  (A web-based solution would not have worked – only 10% of people in this town had access to the Internet).  The researchers sent text messages with health information to the participants.  They encouraged people to ask health questions, and connected people up via text so they could support each other.

What ended up happening was profound.  People reported that for the first time, they felt like they were part of a community, and felt that solidarity that comes with being part of a group.  One participant said it was the first time they felt anybody cared about them.

This is powerful stuff.  The use of simple technology evolved into something even more significant.  Slowly, people began leaving their homes to meet together as a group.  Now they meet in person, and continue to use the text messaging to share information.

The technology facilitated a longer-term, more remarkable solution:  a human solution.  When we look at technology solutions in health, let’s also always consider how technology can work in partnership with human beings.  Human beings are more than just the ‘users’ of technology – we are also powered by compassion, caring and yes, even love.  And that can take us farther than any app, program or device ever could.

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