Kennedy-backed Health eVillages program to deliver mobile reference to health professionals

By: Neil Versel | Sep 27, 2011        

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Neil VerselI normally prefer to remain independent, lest I compromise my journalistic objectivity, but I have decided to make an exception.

Monday at the Health 2.0 conference in San Francisco, Marlborough, Mass.-based Physician’s Interactive Holdings, which owns mobile medical reference software vendor Skyscape, and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, announced that they are jointly launching Health eVillages, a program that will provide smartphones and other mobile devices, loaded with medical texts, drug guides, and other reference tools, to health professionals in low-income regions of the world.

I am honored to be serving on the advisory board to Health eVillages, along with co-founding partners Kerry Kennedy—president of the RFK Center, and daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy—and Physician’s Interactive CEO and Vice Chairman Donato Tramuto.  Other board members include: John Boyer, chairman of government consulting firm Maximus Federal Services; Glen Tullman, CEO of EHR vendor Allscripts; Steve Andrzejewski, former CEO of pharmaceutical company NycoMed, Alexander Baker, chief operating officer of Partners Community Healthcare, which provides management services for physicians affiliated with Partners HealthCare System in Boston; and Dr. Mary Jane England, former president of Regis College, Weston, Mass.

Many of the other board members have committed large sums of money to this project, either through their companies or out of their own pockets. As a humble journalist who’s used to slumming in style (I once flew business class to Europe using frequent-flier miles, then stayed in a hostel), I’m not in position to give a lot of cash, or even provide expertise on technology or healthcare. But I have ideas and contacts from my nearly 11 years covering this industry, and I know of other projects and organizations in the U.S. and abroad that could benefit from working with Health eVillages.

I also was among the 11 journalists worldwide who covered the Rockefeller Foundation’s Making the eHealth Connection conferences in Bellagio, Italy, in 2008. I was one of just two reporters happened to be there for the m-health week. There, I heard of some amazing projects in all corners of the globe that make use of mobile technology. Health eVillages is poised to join that list.

This means I’m going to have to recuse myself from covering any Skyscape news and be careful when covering Allscripts, but I’m not the story here. The story is the program.

“We’re harnessing the capacity of cutting-edge technology to bring healthcare to the neediest people on this earth,” Kennedy says in a video introducing Health eVillages. The idea is based on Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes the right to medical care. Kennedy was mourning the recent death of cousin Kara Kennedy and was not available for an interview for this story, but I’ll have more soon.

Health eVillages is providing new and refurbished phones and other devices, such as the iPod Touch, with clinical decision support and other reference tools that can be accessed offline. This is important because Internet access and even electricity can be spotty in some parts of the world. “The technology has been tailored for specific needs,” Trumato says.

Another key consideration is the fact that medical textbooks are either nonexistent or badly outdated in some parts of the world. Digital reference material can be updated as needed, easily shared and is less of a target for groups such as the Taliban with a history of destroying nonreligious printed material.

Pilots have been run in Haiti, Kenya, Uganda and even right here in the U.S. in impoverished and underserved Gulf Coast communities. Regis College’s nursing school, which MobiHealthNews featured a couple of months ago for incorporating mobility into the curriculum, brought six Haitian nursing professors to Massachusetts over the summer to train them on iPhones and iPod Touches. The professors are bringing their newfound expertise back home, where they can pass their knowledge on to nurses and students serving a population still recovering from the devastating January 2010 earthquake.

Initially, Health eVillages is looking to raise $150,000 to $200,000 over the next six months, hire a project manager and, according to Trumato, “get to a point where there’s a need for an executive director.”  The board will be relying heavily on Kennedy’s extensive global contacts to identify other sites that could benefit from the technology. The project director will put together data from the existing sites to assess whether the effort is successful.

“If we do 20 of these in the life cycle of the program, then we will have made a significant difference,” Trumato says. That attitude recalls Robert Kennedy’s famous 1966 speech in South Africa, where he declared, ” Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

It is a quote that appears at RFK’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery. The RFK Center presents annual Ripple of Hope Awards. And from one board meeting, I got the sense that it will be a motivating force behind Health eVillages.