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Column: Internet access is a vital healthcare tool

By Michele Barry

When Mark Zuckerberg announced a new private sector initiative last month to make affordable Internet access available to people in developing countries, he breathed new life into a long-simmering debate within the global development community — what is the value of technology in societies suffering from urgent social, economic and humanitarian challenges? Familiar voices of criticism have been heard, pointing out that in communities lacking food, clean water and medicine, getting people online is hardly a priority.

Some of these critics are trusted friends and colleagues within the healthcare and humanitarian sector. But as someone with over thirty years of field experience in developing countries, I humbly disagree with them. Achieving greater Internet access in developing countries can save lives, transform communities and revolutionize the quality and provision of healthcare for hundreds of millions of people today. Not only should connectivity be part of the global development agenda, it must be recognized as a vital enabler of the entire agenda.

There are several important reasons for this.

First, better tools for diagnosis and communications can lead to differences in health outcomes. One group of students at Stanford, through our Liberation Technology course, recently produced a mobile app to improve clean water delivery in a large slum in Kenya, allowing users of the app to locate the cheapest prices for water in their community, comment on quality and identify sources of water that make people ill. Another app for community workers targets cholera treatment in areas without any physicians. While many of us in the developed world use our mobile phones for triviality, in developing countries they can be the first line of defense in a public health emergency. This isn't about cat pictures or Angry Birds — mobile phones can be the difference between life and death.

Second, the Internet has a vital role to play in supporting the broader socioeconomic changes in developing countries necessary to improve quality of life. Disease, malnutrition and poor health are products of poverty, and countries that struggle with these challenges need jobs and growth as much as they need the right drugs and treatments. According to McKinsey (PDF), the Internet accounted for around 21 percent of GDP growth in developed countries over the past five years, and in countries in economic transition the Internet already accounts for an average of 1.9 percent of GDP. But according to the International Telecommunication Union (PDF) only around 16 percent of people in Africa are online today. To unlock the full economic potential of the Web, Africa must be fully connected.

Third, the Internet provides an amazing opportunity today to spread greater knowledge that can help save lives and transform approaches to global health. On the simplest level, the Internet can be used by local physicians, community workers and ill patients in developing countries to find information and resources cheaper and faster. Recipes downloaded online for homemade oral rehydration salts that prevent dehydration and death from diarrhea can be just as effective as more expensive imported vaccines. More complex education projects have huge potential for transforming the quality of health infrastructure in developing countries. The Fogarty International Center at the National Institutes for Health is running one initiative that develops electronic training for researchers in poorer communities, demonstrating protocols for conditions such as diabetes, HIV and malaria.

Achieving access to clean water, food and healthcare are essential priorities for developing countries. Connectivity isn't a substitute for these things. But no one suggested it should be. All the evidence today suggests that connectivity is an enabler of the broader development agenda. Today, the Internet can not only help mean the difference between eating and starving, sickness and health, or life and death, but can help defend human rights, improve governance, empower the poor and promote economic development.

As we work to continue advancing global health and humanitarian initiatives, let's move beyond the false notion that we must face a choice between "serious" development goals and connecting the world. Getting the world online is a serious development objective. The Internet might not be a sufficient tool to make the world go to bed happy, healthy and well-fed each night, but it's an essential one — and Zuckerberg's mission is well-worth pursuing.

(Michele Barry is Professor of Medicine, Senior Associate Dean for Global Health and Director of the Center for Innovation in Global Health at Stanford University. Opinions are his own.)

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