Digital Health for 8 Billion People: Andrew Williams from the UN

November 11, 2021 | by Julia Masselos

Andrew Williams is the Chief Medical Support Section of the UN, helping manage peacekeepers on the ground, and diffusing medical technologies to the world’s most under-resourced 1 billion people.

What Are Some of the Issues We Face in Digital Health and Human Rights as We Try to Ensure We are Helping All 8 Billion People, Not Just the Wealthiest Populations?

UN missions typically have three parts – a civilian part that is concerned with managing the mission, and military and police personnel on the ground that deal in austere environments. We use an electronic health record to track them into the mission area after leaving home, and also see how their deployments are affecting their health over time. We are particularly interested in exploiting AI in the coming years to get better insights into how deployment actually affects health over the long term.

Most of our peacekeepers come from developing nations, and what we are seeing is a lack of equity in health support provided to these peacekeepers on the ground. We are starting to implement these electronic medical records in the countries our peacekeepers are from, so we can keep an eye on the health of that group, and mitigate any inequities.

What Other Applications of This Technology Exist?

Beyond peacekeepers, this electronic medical record can be of great use with our humanitarian operations, such as UNICEF and the UNWFP. One of the biggest challenges we have faced recently is finding a balance between the size of the clinical teams we need to deliver top quality care, with the restriction of not being able to have too many boots on the ground.

When you’re working in these austere environments, you need a lot of different specialists in order to deliver modern trauma care – burn specialists, specialized surgeons, ophthalmologists, etc. The conundrum is how do you bring the intellect you need while keeping it to a tiny team?

What Solutions to This Have You Explored?

One possible solution to this is virtual reality. For example, you can have a general surgeon be guided by a more senior, specialized surgeon, through virtual reality. Alternatively, the senior surgeon can lead a rehearsal surgery on an artificial injury, remotely. That is the kind of thing we want to introduce. The beauty of this is that this kind of technology can be applied internationally, so the pool of knowledge and intellect is no longer limited by borders or distance.

The question then becomes how do we ensure this technology gets priced down so it is affordable to the regions where it is being used? We aren’t sure yet.

There are a whole series of technologies that are emerging in the military, peacekeeping, humanitarian and developing world that have the opportunity to address some of the inequities there are in healthcare around the world.

It is important to work toward these efforts. The greater the healthcare stability within these countries, the greater the stability of the country itself.

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