This winter our professional development has two parts. Part one is learning to use a new App we’ve been developing with a local startup. Part two will focus on treatment of older adults in a rural setting.
Our still-to-be named App is designed for use with the Basic Package of Oral Care in Health Posts (or potentially any primary care center in a rural, limited-resource setting). Bethy and I have been meeting with the developer for a few months, discussing how an App can be most beneficial our environment, where public health needs are paramount. What exactly is the role of technology in a Health Post in rural Nepal? Should it help with smart diagnostics? Facilitate “telemedicine” where midlevel providers in remote areas consult with doctors (a hot area of tech innovation that I feel some feelings about)?
We weren’t trying for either of these. I felt strongly that the greatest need in our rural clinics isn’t producing technical magic between provider and patient. For one thing, the logistics are scratchy: most Health Posts can’t rely on a stable cellular connection, much less fast WiFi. But the main reason is that dental technicians should have good training and expertise equivalent to their responsibilities. Why invest in an app instead of improving the skills and abilities of the operator?
Instead, our App is simply designed to provide excellent documentation. Good digital record keeping offers a wealth of valuable opportunities. It can help us track specific conditions at population level (in case you’re into dentistry, which I’m kind of not, that would be things like decay on first permanent molars in schoolchildren). Rather than striving for a medical technology to help to diagnose disease, we designed our App to facilitate documentation of treatment plans over multiple visits and make it easy for technicians to follow-up with patients in their villages. The App should also be able to spit out referral lists to higher care and provide urban centers with referred patients and contact information. And last but not least, as a health surveillance tool, it will allow us to evaluate aggregate data and identify specific needs in different area. And because we are using a community-based and rights-based design, the issues we’re tracking are those that can be addressed with skills that the technicians provide right there in the primary care system (again, in case you’re in to dentistry, that would be things like silver diamine fluoride, ART and sealants).
So in a sense, our App is a much as social justice technology as a medical or public health technology.
It was kind of a thrill to kick off our training on the App yesterday. Bethy gave a great orientation and had meticulously prepared case studies and patient ledgers for the clinical teams to practice entering on the tablets, which were themselves acquired in a great feat of shopping conquery. As is becoming our usual training format, first technicians practiced applying the concepts using case photos, which they used to go through the diagnostic process, write the treatment note on paper, and then in this case transfer the note it on to the App. In the afternoon, real patients joined us and the teams worked at super slow speed with lots of time for questions, consultation, and App usage.
The next we went to Kaskikot to treat students at a primary school and field test the digital data entry process. Gaurab the Bear joined us and he was an enormous hit. I took some close up photos of young children with severe levels of disease in their mouths, and the next day, the teachers spent a few hours meeting with Bidhya and Shreedhar, our field coordinators, about re-launching the school brushing program and creating a junk food free school.
We left with a sizable list of adjustments to be made to the App, but it was incredibly gratifying to see how quickly everyone took to using the tablets. We’re aiming to use parallel paper and digital systems for about six months before – hopefully – switching over.