Mobile Technologies for Health and Wellness: A Global Perspective
What are the largest health needs around the world? And how can technology help?
Geographically, the largest burden of disease resides in developing countries and low-resource areas, where the education level is low, and access to health care resources is very limited. In wealthier countries, as well as developing countries, the largest burden of diseases are now non-communicable diseases (e.g. diabetes, obesity, cancer, etc.), which have some genetic component, but is essentially rooted in human lifestyle and behavior. As our understanding of health and disease has improved, and the scope has expanded to include mental health, we are beginning to realize the importance of monitoring and guiding human behavior.
Mobile phones and tools like SMS have been used in global health for decades, with mixed results, due to poor understanding of the local constraints, and lack of proper clinical validation. Even the most successful deployments of mobile platforms are simply a replacement for paper forms, and lack any real intelligence. As we explore the next-generation of tools, I will share some examples from our work in India, demonstrating how technologies such as computer vision, coupled with machine learning algorithms, are now enabling new types of user interfaces and transforming the paradigm of disease diagnostics in low-resource areas.
In the broader context of behavior medicine, artificial intelligence and the internet of things are now being used to create intelligent feedback systems which can act on a conscious or subconscious level, to provide psychological motivation, teach coping skills, increase the quality of our sleep, adjust our circadian ryhthm, and improve our mood. I will present several examples of technology platforms we have created in recent years, and also present the open challenges that remain, primarily in creating better computer models and algorithms to understand, predict, and motivate human behavior. As we begin to develop such AI platforms to guide our health, this also gives rise to fundamental ethical issues, such as privacy and self-agency, which must also be addressed responsibly.
Rich Fletcher directs the Mobile Technology Group within the MIT D-Lab (www.mobiletechnologylab.org) which develops a variety of mobile sensors, analytic tools, and diagnostic algorithms to study problems in global health and behavior medicine. Dr. Fletcher travels to India approximately 8 times per year and his group partners with organizations in India serving the rural and urban poor, with ongoing research studies funded by NIH, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, Vodafone and the Tata Trust. In the US, Dr. Fletcher works in the area of behavior medicine and public health, addressing health disparities and important issues such as drug addiction and mental health. Bridging together the fields of engineering and medicine, Dr. Fletcher’s research utilizes a variety of mobile technologies and wearable sensors for use in behavior monitoring as well as psychological and behavioral interventions. With family roots in South America (Colombia), Dr. Fletcher is an MIT alumnus (Physics, EE), and has worked for over 20 years in the field of wireless sensors and RFID, including 5 years with the US Air Force Research Lab and 20 years at the MIT Media Lab, producing over a 20 US patents and several spin-off companies. In 2009, Dr. Fletcher patented one of the first mHealth “just in time intervention” (JITAI) systems, and is currently part of several clinical studies with partner hospitals in the US and India exploring ways that mobile technology, Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence can be used to predict and guide human behavior in the context of health.