The Ultimate Medical Device

  My latest story in Wired is all about the race to develop the ultimate diagnostic tool, a handheld gizmo that will might diagnose infectious disease based on the presence of just a blip of DNA material. It so happens, though, that last week I was in Seattle and visited Microsoft Research to hear about what they're up to in health care. One conversation turned me on to what may be the real ultimate tool in medicine - and there are already 3 billion of them in use around the world. It's the cell phone.

Here's the story: A couple years ago, in late 2005, Microsoft put out a small RFP for health care programs on "Digital Inclusion Through Mobile and Wireless Technologies" - the idea being to sponsor programs that used cheap mobile and wireless technologies to solve a broader problem. The awards were very small - just $1.2 million spread over 17 winners - but the idea wasn't to fully fund these programs so much as to lend Microsoft's credibility so that local NGOs and other donors might be brought on board. (Microsoft is also contributing some devices and software to the programs).

The 17 winners were chosen last year, and they're just now getting ready to implement their programs. The programs span a wide range of geography and topics - from mesh networks for security in Beunes Aires to using PDAs and smartphones to enable microfinance in Uganda.

But to me, the most intriguing programs are those that use simple, low-cost cellphones to create potent, robust health care networks. In Botswana, for example, where HIV infections are rampant, they are creating a Healthcare Information Service that taps exists cellular networks to disseminate HIV information. The idea is that education may be the greatest medicine, but it's difficult to get out into local communities.

In Pakistan, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University are helping develop a similar health-information network, this one using speech-recognition technology to deliver info on a broad range of health issues. Speech recognition is necessary because much of the medical services in Pakistan aren't delivered by MDs but by "lady health workers," a battalion of 100,000 government trained first-line workers who deliver primary medicine in communities. Many of these LHWs, though, are illiterate, making speech recognitition a neccessity. These are just simple cellphones, mind you, not fancy devices. And in many of the 17 programs, they're all that's needed to draw together communities and exchange information that can fundementally improve health conditions.

Especially cool is how Microsoft is running the program - already they've brought all the project heads together to share their results and compare notes, allowing some great cross-fertilization of problems and solutions. "If the project in Uraguay is using this ambient network, then it's relevant to the project in Viet Nam," says Tom Healy, program manager for Microsoft Research's external research and program efforts.

Makes you wonder what kind of cool stuff we could be doing here in the US with all the devices we already have surrounding us...