In the Classroom: Real Apps for Real Global Health
Stakes are always high for students presenting final projects. But when the audience is a packed room of public health professionals, and the projects will be piloted in the real world by real partners, “it takes it to another level,” says Faith Umoh.
Umoh and her classmates concluded their course, GH804: Using Mobile Technology to Improve Health Outcomes, with the fifth annual Mobile Health Showcase at Dimagi, a software social enterprise based in Cambridge, on May 10. Partnering with Dimagi and using their mobile platform CommCare, six groups of students created apps to improve the effectiveness of the work their client organizations are doing on the ground around the world.
“This class is so much fun,” says Associate Professor of Global Health James Wolff, who leads the course. “We have real clients who really want the mobile apps that we’re developing, and I think that changes everything in the educational paradigm, because students have an opportunity to do real work for real organizations.”
“Boston University School of Public Health is known for being practice-oriented, and this really is one of the most hands-on courses I’ve seen at any school of public health,” says Jonathan Payne, one of the GH804 instructors.
Why apps? “It’s been developing rapidly throughout the public health field,” Payne says. He explains the use of apps in global health took off around 2010, when slow progress on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals led global health organizations to look for new ways to help harder-to-reach populations. “It was thought that mobile health tools could be a great way to deliver clinical innovations we already knew to populations that we didn’t have good access to,” Payne says. “This course has been an extension of that, and a lot of donors and implementing partners became interested.”
Umoh says she appreciates getting to learn to use such a current technology with so much new demand. “Every time I’ve mentioned building an app to people outside of our program they say, ‘Wow, SPH is ahead of the curve!’” she says. “It’s also incredibly valuable to get these very strong consulting skills. My project allowed me to work with the Ministry of Health of Malawi, and where else can you find that?”
At Dimagi’s offices in Cambridge, the students got another real-world experience: presenting their work to global health professionals from Dimagi, the clients, and other institutions.
Umoh’s group worked with Cooper/Smith and the Malawi Ministry of Health, building an app for HIV/AIDS data collection. Another group worked with Baylor University to build a pneumonia risk screening tool for physicians and nurses to use, also in Malawi. One student group built a mental health screening app for Partners in Health to use in Chiapas, Mexico, and another created a patient satisfaction system for Partners’ community health workers in Chiapas. Another group built a tool for the international development charity TAG, for auxiliary midwives to use to screen children for developmental delays in Myanmar. A sixth group worked with Helping Babies Survive on an app for healthcare providers in Kenya to improve care for newborns in the first two hours after birth.
After each presentation, the students took questions about their products—from people who create these products professionally, at Dimagi and elsewhere. They went over everything from the nitty-gritty functions of the apps, to rates of smartphone ownership within a country or region or demographic, to the possibility of using an app for a dramatically different public health effort.
For Deana Barakat, who worked on the Chiapas community health workers app, “Getting to come to an actual public health organization ups the ante and pushes you to give your best performance,” she says. “It’s a little anxiety-ridden, but to be in front of so many people who are in the field and to get their feedback is a really great opportunity.”
Brady Dunklee, who worked on the depression screening app, agrees. “Having the opportunity to plug into a real-world meeting and show what we’ve done, and connect with other people in this community who are doing that work, is exciting,” he says. For him, presenting at Dimagi was the icing on the cake. “This is the best class I’ve taken at SPH so far,” he says. “It’s been a deeply rigorous, professional experience in many different domains, with the technical aspect but I think much more so in thinking about implementation and translation.”
Meryn Robinson (SPH’14), who took the course two years ago, was one of the professionals in the audience. Getting the real world experience of courses like GH804 “helps you frame what’s expected and how things work outside of the academic sphere,” she says. “Someone is really going to use your product. They’re not just going to read it and say, ‘Yeah, looks pretty good, you get an A.’”
Robinson is now a project manager and research coordinator here at Dimagi, and says working with and presenting to real clients and partners also makes for a big professional opportunity. “You get to start learning about organizations that you might not normally have found without Wolffy, who knows a lot of different people and organizations,” she says. “It’s a good introduction to the real world of development and global health.”