Research and data

Developing Technology to Help Bolster Public Health

Developing Technology to Help Bolster Public Health

Today, technology is used everywhere within society. From self-checkouts to customer service chatbots, it is unavoidable in this digital era. Furthermore, conversions to more digitized solutions are not slowing, especially since efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and many other benefits of technology are highly sought after by businesses and industries.

In adapting to this change, as well as a forceful nudge from the COVID-19 pandemic, the health sector has experienced a surge in health technology and telehealth services. Although results are usually positive, there is an integral aspect to the realm of technology that can be detrimental if missed: access.

“Technology is not neutral. When it is inaccessible or biased, it can cause harm.”

As we grow into a more technologically advanced society, there is an increasing responsibility to ensure protection from harm and injustice. Mark Hernandez, School of Public Health alum, cautioned that “technology can promote health equity or amplify inequities.” With an earlier career as an electrical engineer, Hernandez was already familiar with technology’s powerful role in health data and informatics. Eventually leaning into his public health interests, Hernandez now works as a data scientist and researcher in the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief systems group at MIT Lincoln Laboratory and is an advocate for digital justice.

With health and medicine embracing digitization, there are ample opportunities for synergies to form between the public health field and private industry. In addition to advising on the best approaches for improving health repertoires, public health professionals are trained to steer health technology solutions with a more equitable and inclusionary lens.

Throughout his time at SPH and working with idea hub, Hernandez explored those possibilities and worked on various projects that merged his technical skills and public health expertise. He was able to use the time and funding provided by the MIT Lincoln Scholars program to advance research focused on data analysis, impact evaluation, and geospatial analysis. He worked with researchers such as Patricia Hibberd, professor, and chair of global health, to explore thermal imaging technology for differentiating bacterial and viral pneumonia; and Elaine Nsoesie, assistant professor of global health, to analyze Twitter data to better understand how food and alcohol consumption shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hernandez also worked with Patricia Fabian, associate professor of environmental health, to develop an interactive mapping tool to determine which populations, cities, and towns were most vulnerable to the coronavirus in the Commonwealth.

“When technology is designed thoughtfully, it can help shift resources and power to those who need them.”

The experience highlighted the substantial change that can emerge from tuning into the larger ecosystem of public health practice. In reflection, Hernandez shared, “there are so many local public health departments and community organizations doing amazing work on the ground, but they don’t always have the technical resources to leverage their data and tell their stories”.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are more industry and commercial-based businesses developing, acquiring, and implementing an abundance of technological resources. The effects are felt on both sides, and more so on the general population. As technological progression continues in the realm of health, it is more crucial than ever to ensure access is equitable and just.

Whether a technologist, public health practitioner or entrepreneur, any decision to implement technology as a business solution should be accompanied by a commitment to consider its impact. It is this approach that distinguishes innovation for public good apart from acquisition for profit.

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