Fingerprints Point to the Future of Healthcare

Health workers in developing countries face challenges that are often taken for granted in the developed world, but new technologies have the potential to become leap frog solutions that address such barriers.

Written by Elizabeth Dzeng, Toby Norman, and Daniel Storisteanu

Health workers in developing countries face challenges that are often taken for granted in the developed world, but new technologies have the potential to become leap frog solutions that address such barriers. Major obstacles exist today in the identification of patients, a fundamental issue at the very core of delivery of health care in resource poor settings. All too often patients have medical histories that doctors or community health workers (CHW) have no access to. Addressing this difficulty would potentially revolutionize prevention and treatment in a diverse array of public health areas ranging from vaccination campaigns, to prenatal care, to improving treatment adherence in diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV.

Despite this, there has been limited innovation in this area. Most health systems in developing countries depend on paper records, which are easily lost and not immediately accessible. These records also assume a western notion of identification that fail to adapt to cultural variations such as multiple members of a community having the same name, and rural villagers often not knowing their exact date of birth. Compound this with inconsistent access to health care across wide geographical expanses, and it becomes extremely difficult to guarantee that a health worker will be able to identify the needs of her patient during an encounter.

Let's take the example of childhood vaccinations, one of the most cost effective interventions in public health. One child dies every twenty seconds from a vaccine preventable disease and almost one third of child deaths can be prevented through vaccinations. But the vulnerabilities of paper records make it challenging for CHWs to identify what immunizations a child has already had and which ones they needs during their visit.

In part due to these difficulties, we have only achieved approximately 80% coverage world wide using existing technologies and health systems. A recent study estimated that a scale up of five immunizations in 72 of the world's poorest countries could save 6.4 million children annually. We have started a social enterprise start up called SimPrints, which has the potential to contribute towards solving this global health challenge, as well as many others.

SimPrints is in the process of developing a mobile-based fingerprint scanner that instantly connects an individual's fingerprint to health records such as immunization records and prenatal visits. This Bluetooth-enabled scanner, allows for real time access to health records, which enables CHWs to instantaneously access critical information necessary to provide care. In contrast to paper records sitting unhelpfully back in the clinic office, this technology would enable a CHW to swipe the mother's fingerprint and receive an instantaneous update of what vaccines they have received and what needs to be administered that day.

This versatile technology would be compatible with existing mHealth applications and platforms, allowing for seamless integration into pre-existing systems through an application programming interface (API). Many future opportunities exist for SimPrints to become a platform technology that works with other technologies such as rapid diagnostic testing and point of care lab testing, to address challenges in drug adherence, disease monitoring, and diagnosis.

Another exciting arena for SimPrints are its potential applications in areas beyond public health. For example, mobile biometrics can address the challenge of tracking refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP). Identifying refugees is a significant challenge since many refugees lack formal identification and may have crossed several national borders. In these settings biometrics offer a powerful tool for aid workers to link refugees to a single unique identification that can connect GPS location, medical data, and aid records. This fingerprint identification would transcend time and geography to allow aid workers to adequately supply the camp and facilitate reunification of family members torn apart by war and conflict.

Dr. Alain Labrique, Director of the Johns Hopkins University Global mHealth Initiative recently challenged us with the notion that "identification is the holy grail of mHealth." We at SimPrints are excited to take on this issue and strive to substantively impact on-the-ground health care delivery through mobile biometrics.

This blog was originally posted on the Gates Foundation Impatient Optimist blog.


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