Prepare for Emergencies: Strengthen Primary Care


2 April 2013
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Primary care forms the foundation of all health systems. Without it, communities are less able to respond to humanitarian emergencies, such as those posed by climate change. At the 2nd Columbia University Earth Summit panel on health, speakers highlighted the need to strengthen basic health services to better protect the health of communities when disasters do occur.

In his address, Rabin Martin President and CEO Bill Martin noted that climate change and the increasing burden of natural disasters will only serve to exacerbate existing problems in health care systems. He argued that to effectively prepare for and respond to climate change and other emerging challenges, the global health community must strengthen primary care services. Dr. Prabhjot Singh, Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and Co-Chair of the One Million Community Health Workers Campaign, agreed, noting that more robust health systems with integrated primary care services are better able to mount a rapid response to complex humanitarian emergencies.

Big data – large complex data sets captured, in part, by mobile devices – can also be harnessed to inform public health decisions during a crisis, according to Jonathan Jackson, Founder and CEO of Dimagi. For example, primary health care workers in Haiti use mobile phones to report cases of cholera to better track the spread of the disease. As a result, health officials can now reallocate limited resources based on real-time information.

However, technology is not a panacea – using data to inform health system development needs to be done in conjunction with strengthening basic health services. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, for instance, data-rich maps that used geo-coded Tweets informed users where food, shelter and medical supplies could be found. These maps also tracked power outages and closed streets. First responders also used this information to target their efforts and shorten their response time. However, the data could not address issues that resulted from an overburdened health system, and thousands of New Yorkers were still unable to access essential medical care.

Tackling the next generation of global health problems will require a combination of creative applications of technology and the effective execution of basic public health functions. Given the current challenges to health resource allocation around the world, achieving this goal will require a concerted effort from both public and private sector actors. The task before us will not be easy, but we are up to the challenge.

Bill Martin and Aaron Kotler contributed to the writing of this article.

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