Expanding Health, not just Healthcare through Open Source Technology

The past few decades have seen remarkable advances in medicine driven largely by emerging technologies. From robotic surgery and 3D printing of medical devices to gene editing, telemedicine, and artificial intelligence (AI), new innovations are transforming how we diagnose and treat disease. Yet, while technology has been propelling medicine forward at an accelerated pace, its contributions to advances in the field of public health have been more sluggish.

Public health focuses on promoting health, preventing disease, and prolonging life among entire populations rather than just treating individuals after they become ill. This requires addressing social, environmental, and economic factors that impact health outcomes. Technology could be leveraged to make major improvements in many aspects of public health, but progress has not kept up with the medical arena.

One significant public health challenge where technology is sorely needed is strengthening emergency preparedness and response. As evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, even economically advanced nations can be caught off guard by novel disease outbreaks. Investments in early warning systems, real-time disease surveillance, rapid medical countermeasure development, and robust emergency communication systems could dramatically improve readiness for a wide array of public health threats. AI, geospatial mapping, and crowd-sourced data gathering, are all technologies that the PathCheck Foundation launched with several public health agencies around the globe for these purposes. 

Technology also has largely untapped potential when it comes to tackling enduring disparities in health outcomes across populations. Significant gaps exist along racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, geographic, and other lines. Innovations in data analytics, predictive modeling, and the collection of more granular, representative health data could help uncover the complex factors driving these inequities and allow for more targeted interventions. Wearables, smartphones, and two-way communication platforms further enable personalized outreach and real-time monitoring that can improve prevention and care among marginalized groups.

Open source technology initiatives like those from PathCheck Foundation are helping expand access to critical public health tools. By developing privacy-first software and making the code freely available, our mission remains to enable public health authorities, researchers, and community groups to implement digital solutions for a variety of public health needs - not just those related to pandemics. This collaborative approach can catalyze innovation and timelier responses.

Of course, thoughtfully implementing tech-based solutions with an eye toward inclusiveness and equitable access remains crucial. But overall, smarter leveraging of emerging technologies for forward-looking public health initiatives rather than just reactive medical treatments could substantially move the needle on population health outcomes. The COVID-19 crisis has underscored the need for this kind of reorientation.

Policymakers have a major role to play in spurring greater technology-driven innovation in the public health arena. Increased funding for relevant research and digital infrastructure development is essential. So too are incentives for private-sector technology companies to devote more resources to public health applications. And supporting collaborations between public health agencies, academia, startups, and community organizations can catalyze advancements.

At the same time, maintaining diligent oversight and ethics frameworks for health technologies is imperative to prevent unintended consequences. As with medicine, public health innovations should uphold principles like safety, effectiveness, accessibility, transparency, and equity above all else.

Technology has shown what it can achieve when given the resources and direction to disrupt even entrenched systems like healthcare delivery. Whether dealing with the current pandemic or the next public health crisis, it is time we leverage these tools just as boldly to move from a reactive sick-care model to one focused on prevention and promotion of health across populations. The technology is here – it now must be applied more ambitiously to expand health, not just healthcare.