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Restoring Eyesight: Leveraging Tech to Empower People

June 24, 2015

Wasty_steinberg_maguire_phillips_200.2Jadi Begum Bi lives in a small mud house near Sargodha, Pakistan. She may never meet Shakil Khan, a member of a displaced community near Syedpur, Bangladesh, or Raju Sharma, a laborer in Patna, India. They all have one thing in common, though: they had been blind for years, until their eyesight was restored and their lives transformed as part of RS Foundation's ocular procedures program.

A Canadian nonprofit organization, the RS Foundation has facilitated more than fourteen thousand procedures for men, women, and children over the past six years by funding local and international partners such as OBAT Helpers USA, Sightsavers in the UK, and the Seva Canada Society. Other organizations engaged in this work in a significant way include 20/20/20 (U.S.), the Fred Hollows Foundation (Australia), the Aravind Eye Care System (India), LRBT (Pakistan) and Unite for Sight, whose eye clinics have benefited 1.9 million patients in Ghana, Honduras, and India.

According to the World Health Organization, 60 percent of the estimated half a million children who go blind every year in developing countries will die in childhood. WHO further notes that restoring sight is the single most cost-effective health intervention in reducing global poverty. For the cost of dinner at an inexpensive restaurant, a poor, visually impaired individual can have their sight restored, regain the ability to work and provide for their family, and recover their lost dignity. Indeed, studies have found that eye surgery interventions in developing Asian and African countries "significantly increase personal consumption expenditure (PCE) among operated cases" and raise "productivity among vulnerable groups, in particular females, [the] elderly and those with the [least] economic opportunity."

Leveraging innovation and new technologies is essential to the success of global health interventions. Remote defibrillators, text-message campaigns that raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, and using social media to track Ebola cases are just a few recent examples. Combining mobile applications with routine ocular procedures has similar potential to streamline these efforts and significantly enhance their impact. For example, RS Foundation has provided funding to Peek Vision in support of its efforts to develop a mobile adapter that enables health workers equipped with low-cost smartphones to screen displaced populations or individuals in rural communities, eliminating the need for a hospital team from a distant location to be transported, at great expense, to conduct on-site pre-screenings. Local mobile-equipped health workers also can be tasked with creating and maintaining a database of cases and share that information with doctors and surgeons elsewhere, making it easier to track outcomes in real time.

Such an approach is markedly more efficient than more conventional interventions. Just as important, however, "participative" interventions of this kind not only reduce waiting times for, and the cost of, desperately needed procedures, they also equip local communities with tools that enable them to take charge of their own health. Indeed, if deployed effectively, mobile health workers could guide the planning and implementation of interventions so as to deliver scarce resources where they are most needed. This kind of user-driven approach also makes it more likely that female members of the community are involved in health interventions, which, in turn, would raise their profile in the community and contribute to greater cooperation among all members of the community. Best of all, these and other long-term benefits can be achieved for the cost of a few inexpensive smartphones and the time required to train members of local communities in their use.

To that end, HelpMeSee, a U.S.-based global campaign to eliminate cataract blindness, has developed, in partnership with Canadian-based technology development firm Clarity, a mobile app that will enable community health workers to better locate patients, map the incidence of cataract blindness, and connect patients with specialists who can provide care. HelpMeSee also has developed a virtual reality simulator to train cataract specialists.

Innovative products like this are becoming available at ever-lower cost, creating opportunities for more targeted health interventions in more places. Restoring the eyesight of poor people who have lost their ability to see is one way to reduce poverty and improve the economic prospects of communities that have been mired in despair and stagnation. As highlighted through our research, "the gift of sight enables access to education and socioeconomic opportunity through an intervention that is immediate and tangible, yet [whose] impact is generational." We believe the global health community is on the threshold of a tech-driven revolution and look to NGOs, social entrepreneurs, and philanthropic organizations to continue their support for innovations and technologies that can deliver benefits to millions of people around the world.

Shujaat Wasty, a practitioner in the international affairs and development field, is a member of the Leadership Council at the Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University, fellow with the Royal Society of Arts, RS Foundation board member, and vice president of OBAT Helpers. Shirley R. Steinberg is research professor of youth studies at the University of Calgary, founder of the International Institute for Critical Pedagogy and Transformative Leadership and Freireproject.org and an RS Foundation board member. Kate Maguire is a senior lecturer at Middlesex University in London and a Beacon Award winner for services to the voluntary sector. And Jennie Phillips is a doctoral fellow with the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.

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