On 17 and 18 May 2018, i-sense members Dr Val Turbé (McKendry group at UCL) and Professor Rosanna Peeling from LSHTM were invited to take part in the ‘Phones, Drones and Disease’ workshop, organised by the Centre for the Humanities and Medicine at the University of Hong Kong.
The purpose of the workshop is to explore how digital networks are reconfiguring health, who benefits from these new technologies, who pays for them and what kinds of resistance and countervailing effects are these technologies producing.
The workshop brought together a broad range of researchers with a common interest in the use of modern technologies in relation to infectious diseases. Social scientists, epidemiologists, historians, technology start-ups, and lab-based researchers presented their work and discussed the current state, future landscape, and social implications of connected healthcare.
Organised around half-day sessions of talks followed by panel discussions, the workshop showcased some examples of modern technologies being used in frontline research. These examples ranged from GPS tags used to identify high-risk transmission areas of malaria in rural Thailand, to the use of drones to map out the limits of the primary rainforest in Borneo and how deforestation relates to the transmission of monkey malaria in this area.
Two drone start-ups (Wincopter, Germany and Yonah, Singapore) also presented their technology and proof-of-concept studies for drug delivery conducted in Tanzania and Papua New Guinea, respectively.
Sharing i-sense research
Val contributed by presenting the work on a smartphone-based app to assist self-testing for HIV, conducted by i-sense in collaboration with the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and contributed to a panel discussion. Prof Peeling gave the closing plenary in which she shared lessons learnt from her projects on use of phones and drones for health in Africa, the tremendous potential for disruptive solutions for global health security, but the urgent need for data governance and architecture for the introduction and scale up of connected health care systems.
Key learnings from a fruitful discussion
Fruitful discussions highlighted some essential questions related to the design and implementation of connected tools in resource-limited settings. Some key learnings and considerations that i-sense members took from the conference included:
- the social implications of empowering members of the public to easily access their health status (e.g. HIV status)
- the growing role of social media to communicate public health messages
- the unavoidable link between connected tools and surveillance systems
- the gender divide in terms of acceptability of health-related technologies (i.e. broadly, women tend to be more accepting of new technologies), and;
- the need to think further ahead when designing and implementing new technologies, in particularly about the long terms implications and benefits for the community, past initial studies and early implementation.
How was the conference valuable to i-sense?
The workshop was very beneficial to the i-sense members that attended, providing the opportunity to discuss research with groups working in similar areas and conducting field-based studies, as well as engaging with social scientists and academics interested in the social implications of the tools i-sense is developing.
The meeting was particularly useful at this crucial stage when i-sense researchers are looking to make the transition from lab-based research to field-based pilot studies and engage with the specific communities where the tools will be piloted.