Smart innovations touch every part of our lives – both at home and in the streets. We use them to facilitate our daily tasks, to move around town, and to stay connected. We can also use them to promote better public health, an area whose importance came to the fore during the pandemic. Just like the 1848 cholera outbreak in London prompted the creation of the first health law in the UK and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake prompted the creation of guidelines for seismic construction, we can use our ongoing experience with the pandemic as a catalyst to better incorporate the new, smart technologies we have at our disposal to enable better public health outcomes globally.
Why do we need to think of health as “public”?
Public health can be defined as “The science and art of promoting health, preventing disease, and prolonging life through the organized efforts of society.”*.
Health is a personal matter – or at least we tend to believe so. But the concentration of people, vehicles, and industry in a relatively small area (like in cities), creates an abundance of health hazards that are not up to the individual to manage.
Recently, COVID-19 showed us once again how vulnerable the urban population is to viral infections – 90% of cases came from urban areas. While in remote areas the problems arise from the insufficient presence of medical teams, in cities, even the best equipped and best-staffed hospitals quickly become inundated with cases. Links between COVID-19 mortality and air pollution also underscore the need to reevaluate how we can keep people in big cities healthy in the long run.
It is apparent that a better system is needed to ensure that urban environments don’t pose greater risks than benefits for their inhabitants. Legislation is constantly evolving to improve living standards in cities, yet we have a long way to go before we consider the urban environment healthy. One path forward is to make sure we are using the full potential of smart technologies to our advantage.
How can smart tech help us build better public health solutions?
Tools for remote health monitoring that respect personal freedoms
A few countries, including Singapore and South Korea, implemented early in the pandemic mobile applications that made it easier for citizens and local health authorities to keep track of transmission chains, provide notifications of exposure and make sure people stuck to mandatory quarantine. While many human rights organizations have voiced concerns about these apps, when implemented correctly – respecting people’s personal rights and freedoms, they can be invaluable in early pandemic response.
What’s more, such applications can be connected to sensors like pulsometers, blood pressure sensors, blood sugar sensors, etc. to provide data to health authorities in cases of home treatment or when monitoring elderly people. An app can sound the alarm if something goes wrong so that emergency services can react immediately. These tools can also be used for telemedicine and remote consultations whenever needed.
Enhancing cybersecurity to protect health records
As mentioned, privacy is a big issue when the health of the individual is concerned. Leaked medical records can do tremendous damage. Smart technology and the latest in cybersecurity need to be used to prevent such leaks and make sure that sensitive data is not shared with or sold to nefarious 3rd party organizations.
With the help of smart sensors, scientists nowadays can monitor remotely test subjects, thus improving their research’s pools of data. Not only can sensors send information in real time, but they are also far more reliable than self-reported information from individuals.
Smart apps to promote prevention
Smart mobile applications are not only useful when people are already sick – they can be used for prevention, too. Monitoring health status and reporting deficiencies is one way they can help people adjust their lifestyles. More walking, a better diet, improving one’s cardio routine, and sending reminders for yearly check-ups are only a few examples of how mobile apps can help us thrive even if we often forget what is healthy for us amid the city’s hustle and bustle. With climate change looming over our heads, mobile applications can help remind people to rest in the shade during the hottest hours, drink more water, or seek shelter from flash flooding, cold waves, and storms. Digital citizenship applications can also be included to bolster local initiatives led by citizens who have the necessary expertise (like yoga in the park).
Mental health (designing urban spaces for humans)
Smart technology can also help us maintain good mental health. As contradictory as it may sound, mobile applications are already developing ways to nudge people to take a rest from scrolling, for example (it is a whole other thing to make people actually do it!). Another way we can use smart technology is to help urban planners design spaces for humans first. Incorporating more greenery, more pedestrian areas, and thinking smart about infrastructure can help future developments provide a better environment for their citizens. In existing urban areas, smart design can help architects use space better to incorporate technologies so that people can move around more easily, ensure safety with air pollution sensors, etc. Enhancing public transportation is a key part of this strategy so that traffic can be sustainably reduced and organized so as not to disrupt “slow street” projects and other urban areas designed to reduce stress in urban areas.
Smart city, smart healthcare
As we move out of the pandemic, we might be tempted to forget about the past two years – especially with a tumultuous decade ahead of us. A connected world will be better for everyone if we find a way to respect people’s privacy and balance the use of technology so that it stays human, and helps humans stay healthy.
* Nutbeam, Don. (1998) “Health promotion glossary.” Health promotion international 13(4): 349-364