Fitbit-like wearable devices can help malnourished children

By Katie Murar

At the fourth annual Global Health Symposium in downtown Chicago, public health advocates explained how innovative technologies such as wearable devices are improving access to health care in third world countries.

The event, hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs at the Standard Club on Friday, brought together three women involved in public health in a panel discussion to explore the connection between education and health, and how technology can improve access to both.

“Health and education are the two fundamental pillars of human development in any country,” Rebecca Winthrop, senior director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, said. “If kids don’t have the right nutrition, then their school performance suffers.”

Winthrop said education is a health “intervention,” meaning that increased access to education lowers mortality rates.

“Since 1970, half of all reductions of infant mortality are directly attributable to girls getting higher levels of education,” Winthrop said.

Gabe Diaz, an audience member and public health graduate student at George Washington University, commented afterward that education and health are “undoubtedly” connected, and technology is priceless when it comes to conducting research about global health issues.

“Technology is extremely beneficial in the public health sector,” Diaz said. “It’s a huge benefit in that it not only helps with research but it helps employ the findings of that research in different parts of the world and can connect a developed country with developing countries.”

Winthrop said health issues are relevant to children in every part of the world, and in order to be a global citizen, we need to understand the ways in which global health is interconnected.

Caryl M. Stern, president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, sang the praises of a new program that connects youngsters in the United States to kids in developing countries through a pedometer, which is now called The Wearable for Good.

“It first started as a pilot in Sacramento, where we gave fourth and fifth graders free arm bands which counts the amount of steps you take, and if you take 1,500 steps, you get a Kid Power point,” Stern said. “For every 10 Kid Power points we release a sachet of micronutrients to a starving child.”

The idea was born out of two “startling” health reports that coincidentally ended up side-by-side on Stern’s desk one morning.

“The first study said one in four children in America is underactive to the point of contributing to the significant obesity problem in America, while the second report said one in four children around the world are severely malnourished,” Stern said. “Today 16,000 children will die due to causes we know how to prevent.”

Stern then challenged her senior management team to find a solution that would help alleviate these issues, and the wearable device was created. It costs $39.99, $10 of which is allocated to fund the micronutrient dosage to be released to starving children around the world.

Diaz sees both educational and health values in this product, claiming it is an “effective and innovative” way to allocate resources.

But one audience member, a nurse named Tracy Rowe, was not as impressed.

“It seems gimmicky,” Rowe said. “Why not just donate all the money to this issue? There is already enough awareness raised towards the problem of underfed children, so we need more outcomes that make the most out of money.”

Panelist Dana Suskind, professor of surgery and pediatrics at the University of Chicago Medicine Corner Children’s Hospital, said she’s developed a research program called the 30 million words model that uses a wearable device to track words instead of steps.

“This research will help us track language in the formative years of a child’s life, and help parents understand strategies to enrich their children’s language,” Suskind said. “Language is the most important indication of educational development, and if we can strengthen the early learning environments of children we can really change their trajectories, so we could be preventing issues instead of alleviating them.”

Rowe, the skeptical nurse, applauded the innovative technology in the wearable devices discussed at the event, and liked the idea of technology helping to connect two individuals in very different situations.

“Technology is crucial, and it can be really great in how it is able to connect people from across the world,” Rowe said. “You can extrapolate findings and research through technology, and spread it through social media, which is really invaluable, especially when thinking of global health issues.”

Photo at top: In a panel discussion, women in the public health sector explored different ways in which technology can increase access to health care in developing countries. (Katie Murar/MEDILL)