Advances in technology are changing the way health care services are delivered, from wearable devices that provide earlier diagnoses and recommend personalized treatments, to telehealth technologies that connect patients and health professionals in a virtual space.
In the realm of public health, technology supports the ways in which professionals can gather and analyze information and provide improved care to communities. Public health professionals have vast opportunities to create and use dynamic public health technology solutions that can have a profound impact on patient care.
How Does Technology Support the Goals of Public Health?
Public health’s primary goals focus on protecting and improving the health of communities. Public health technology helps reach these goals with greater efficiency. When applied to public health situations, tech provides public health professionals with advanced tools to obtain accurate, detailed population data in real time. This data can help them build more effective actionable health strategies covering a range of scenarios, from individual care strategies to coordinating support systems that can address widespread disease outbreaks.
Examples of How Technology and Public Health Work Together
Technology encompasses everything from life-saving devices to data-gathering tools, meaning that the synergy between technology and public health is multifaceted. While the following examples demonstrate this interaction in vastly different ways, they are all united by the goal of improving community health.
Geospatial technology has a range of health care functions, but perhaps one of its most interesting might be its ability to provide information that can help improve public health. Geospatial technology collects information about several factors, analyzes the data, and displays the results on a multilayered map.
For example, geospatial tech can provide in-depth information on disease penetration within a specific region, health risks by age demographic, care delivery logistics, and other social factors that influence population health. These multilayered maps can inform and educate professionals and the community about an area’s true state of health care and allow decision-makers to improve the locations they govern.
Geospatial technology’s functionality and purpose quickly rose to greater prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortly after the coronavirus started to spread throughout the nation, public health officials turned to geospatial technology, performing contact tracing to identify individuals who may have been exposed to the potentially deadly disease. This methodology enabled public health officials to develop and recommend flexible strategies designed to slow the viral spread.
Twitter has much more to offer than celebrity gossip and enticing food photos. Health care professionals are using the popular microblogging platform to monitor the spread of infectious diseases, including COVID-19, and predict disease activity. During flu season, researchers at universities across the country analyze millions of tweets containing the word “flu.” These researchers have found Twitter to be a more accurate monitoring tool for the disease than those used in the past, such as public laboratories and Google searches.
According to health experts, the real-time information gleaned from Twitter is also more useful because it is timelier. By receiving information nearly earlier, researchers can more accurately chart disease activity. Doctors can also access the information to make better treatment decisions during a health epidemic.
Wearable fitness bands allow users to easily track their movements throughout the day. Metrics such as total steps taken, heart rate, run or ride pace, or the amount and quality of sleep each night help individuals better identify, track and achieve their own health and fitness goals.
For those who choose to regularly use a wearable monitor, this information can serve as a reference point when communicating with health care providers about general wellness goals or other health markers. Health insurance providers have also taken notice and have built incentive programs to encourage the use of wearables. For example, UnitedHealthcare’s UnitedHealthcare Motion program provides its members the opportunity to earn money toward out-of-pocket medical expenses by reaching walking goals, a metric that can be monitored with a wearable device.
Beyond fitness, wearable technologies are advancing to monitor vital statistics such as a user’s heart rate, lung function, blood oxygen level and blood sugar. They are even being developed to track and alert the onset of degenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. A user could have the level of medication in their blood regularly monitored according to a physician’s plan and be reminded to administer their next dose when its level drops below a certain threshold.
3D printer technology enables medical professionals to produce patient-specific anatomical models that exactly replicate a trouble spot inside a patient. Surgeons are then able to physically handle the models, examining them and simulating a variety of possible procedures to bring a better-informed solution to the operating room. This not only enhances the team-based training environment, but also allows for more specialized, personalized and precise treatment plans — improving health care quality and reducing costs.
Other examples of 3D-printed body parts include a functioning artificial ear from scientists at Cornell University, blood vessels from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, skin cells at Wake Forest University that can be printed directly on wounds, and a 3D-printed liver produced by the private company Organovo.
3D printing also became a vital asset in the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A host of 3D-printed devices and tools have been created to alleviate supply chain shortages, from swabs used for COVID testing to splitting devices that enable multiple people to use a single ventilator.
Cell phones, mobile devices and PCs are helping connect patients with their practitioners. People too ill to attend a clinic, without adequate transportation or without spare time can video conference with a trained health care practitioner through apps such as Doctor on Demand and NowClinic. Additionally, all of the health insurance industry’s major players offer some form of telehealth in their health coverage options.
The rise of mobile health, or mhealth, has significant implications not only for the United States, but also the developing world. Data amassed by Pew Research indicates that around 5 billion people worldwide have mobile devices, more than half of which are smartphones. This provides encouragement that telehealth may have the capacity to reach patients that traditional forms of health care do not.
Pursue Your Career in Public Health Technology
Geospatial technologies, social media monitoring, wearable tech, 3D printing and telehealth are just some of the tools that medical professionals are employing to improve patient care and outcomes. While time will tell what other high-tech tools will revolutionize public health in the future, each of these current and evolving public health technologies has the potential to profoundly impact a community’s health and well-being.
Working toward your online Master of Public Health from USC means embracing the growing role that technology is playing in the delivery of health care services.
The online program prepares skilled, compassionate public health professionals who are equipped to make a positive difference in the lives of others. The curriculum offers students the knowledge and understanding to help those who need it most, and puts them at the forefront of emerging technologies and trends.
Discover today how USC and the Master of Public Health program can inspire your career journey.
JMIR Publications, Preliminary Flu Outbreak Prediction Using Twitter Posts Classification and Linear Regression With Historical Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Reports: Prediction Framework Study