Blue tooth scales that instantly transmit data to a PC and stethoscopes, designed to measure heart murmurs in children, that connect to mobile devices are just some of the ways primary health care is going high-tech.
It’s called e-health or m-health – short for electronic and mobile health – and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University‘s Prof Darelle van Greunen, who has spent three years driving research in this area, hopes it will improve school and community healthcare throughout South Africa, right up to its most remote corners.
The blue tooth scales help to automatically calculate body mass index (BMI) and are being tested in the rural areas of Cofimvaba and Chris Hani, as part of a project for the Department of Science and Technology.
“The technology is cutting-edge,” said Van Greunen, a professor in NMMU’s School of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Even glaucometers – blood tests to measure for diabetes – have gone virtual, as have measuring blood pressure and pulse rate. “Everything is linked to a tablet,” said Van Greunen.
The data is filed away in cyber space, effectively creating a health profile for patients that is non-reliant on old-fashioned clinic cards.
“Working with clinic nurses who go out to the schools, we’re busy creating health profiles of children, from Grade 1 to Grade 12.
“These innovations empower community health workers – it takes less time to take measurements and it’s more accurate and efficient.”
Best of all, the devices and applications are easy to use, thanks to Van Greunen’s vast experience in “human computer interaction” and user experience – making computers and mobile devices more accessible to everyone. She even served as one of five global user experience champions within SAP Research Globally from 2006 to 2011.
Such is her passion for technology that empowers communities that she has also been gunning for a Centre for Community Technologies to be set up at the university – and it has just been officially approved, with steps now in place to appoint staff, organise funding and set up projects.
But e-health and m-health are not the only ways Van Greunen is making a difference within the community; she is also involved in several community-building projects. One of these, in Port Elizabeth’s gang-targeted Northern Areas, and working closely with FamHealth, is a youth leadership academy for “at-risk-youth” in Gelvandale. Pupils from Grade 11 attend Saturday classes, in which the teenagers are given training in technology, leadership, entrepreneurship and many other life skills they will need “to become successful adults”.
“It’s a holistic programme, run by volunteers from the university.”
She is also involved in a new initiative – called Mobile Community Health Learning Space – in which mobile and tablet technology is being used to provide support to vulnerable women and children in the Northern Areas. Partnering with FamHealth and the Northern Areas People’s Development Imitative (Napdi), the aim is ensure members of the community “gain access to health awareness topics, assistance on managing chronic diseases and support for finding help with regards to substance abuse and domestic violence”.
“We are partnering with counsellors, medical doctors and so on,” said Van Greunen.
The project will also work to educate and empower women in the community through campaigns via technology.