Health eVillages: mHealth tools for underserved regions worldwide (transcript)

This is the transcript of my recent podcast interview with Health eVillages co-founder Donato Tramuto.

David Williams: This is David E. Williams, co-founder of MedPharma Partners and author of the Health Business Blog.  I’m speaking today with Donato Tramuto.  He’s founder, CEO and vice chairman of Physicians Interactive. He’s also co-founder of Health eVillages.  Donato, thanks for being with me today.

Donato Tramuto: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Williams: I’d really like to hear about this Health eVillages program.  What is it?

Tramuto: Let me explain how we got here.  I’m going to start with two very important boards that I serve on; one is Regis College, a college that is focused towards nursing. I have also been appointed to the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights leadership board.

I had exposure through Regis to a nursing program and affiliation we had in Haiti, and we learned days after the earthquake that 70 of the nursing students whom we had provided services to had died when the nursing school in Haiti collapsed.

We had all of these resources on the medical information side and I kept scratching my head asking myself what can we do?  Obviously you can send funds and help out that way, but what else can you do?

I was having dinner with Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of Senator Robert F. Kennedy and President of the RFK Center. She was already prepared to head off to Haiti to assess the situation to see what the RFK Center could do.  I said why don’t you take a dozen of our mobile devices, which we will download with medical information, the Rx drug guide and other resources that I think could be critical to nurses or physicians in the village. Tools that could help them to bring a safer and more effective way to treat patients.

Kerry took these twelve devices and throughout her trip I was receiving information from her that people were thrilled.  Historically they were guessing about dosing but now they had an automated drug guide that would help equip them with the proper dosing information for patients.

When she came back, we started talking about taking this idea to other countries and underdeveloped communities here in the United States. The idea was to work with organizations like Physicians for Human Rights and Doctors Without Borders to see, when there is a disaster, if we could be part of the early responders and make these medical devices available.

We came up with the name Health eVillages.  I then recruited some top talent to serve on our advisory board: GlenTullman, chairman of Allscripts, and John Boyer, chairman of MAXIMUS.  We brought in people from the pharmaceutical arena: Steve Andrzejewski, former CEO of Nycomed; Alex Baker, Chief Operating Office of Partners Community Healthcare; Neil Versel, one of the most talented technology innovators and writers. Each one of those folks stepped forward and instantly said yes, I want to serve on this board. They also followed their commitment with a significant donation.

The next challenge we had was to convince the board of the RFK Center to allow this new program to reside within the RFK Center, because I felt strongly that that would give it validation and we would have the exposure to many representatives across the world who are associated with the Center to help us identify where the needs might be.

That brought us to this summer when we started meeting with political leaders in Congress and the Senate. One individual we came across was former Senator Bill Frist.  As you know, the Senator has been a pioneer and beacon in working in underserved communities since he left the Senate. He was impressed.  We were on the phone for about an hour and we talked to him about the various aspects of this program. Within 48 hours I received a message back from Senator Frist alerting me that he had an idea about a village in Kenya that was being served by a single physician associated with Vanderbilt and how they had a gap and a need for textbooks.

One of the things we do with the devices is to repurpose medical textbooks and get them onto the mobile.  He was telling me that the text books out there are 60 or 70 years old. They’re outdated and there’s only a few of them.

So we brought Dr. Mark W. Newton over and signed up his facility to be in a pilot with us.

Then Kerry Kennedy went to Louisiana this summer with the RFK Center delegation to reassess health issues arising out of the Gulf oil spill. We asked Kerry to take a dozen devices with her delegation and put them into the hands of the people who are faced with new diseases as a result of exposure to the toxic waste.  We got reports back that this was an amazing tool because it had the capacity, with our SmartLink application, to bring multiple data sets and information together to help them better identify new diseases that might be progressing as a result of the toxic waste.  So that really brought forth validation.

We had a pilot going on in Haiti as a result of the earthquake.  We had a pilot going on in Louisiana as a result of the Gulf oil spill.  We had a pilot going on with Dr. Newton in Kenya.

Also, our board member Glen Tullman was kind enough to bring us into a situation where he was making available physicians to go to Uganda to help out in communities there.  We asked if we could be a part of that program and now we have a fourth pilot going on in Uganda.

So there you have Health eVillages, in a short period of time, becoming a significant opportunity.  We’re doing small things to help people do big things.

Williams: That’s exciting.  Do you have a plan for how you would continue to scale it up? Are there other organizations you will partner with?

Tramuto: This is where the Kennedy Center really helps.  I’ll start with the second part of your question.  Because of the RFK Center affiliation, we are working with them and their affiliation with Physicians for Human Rights and Doctors Without Borders to tie into their response.  They are certainly rapid responders to disasters so we are tied in with them.

One of the interesting yearly events that the RFK Center conducts is that they identify an individual from a country who has been the Martin Luther King of that country and not only honor that person, but also stay with that person for five years to see through the respective issue that they are addressing.

The Kennedy Center provides funding, but also political support, spiritual support and physical support.  We will work with the Kennedy Center on issues that have a health care bent, making devices and information available.

In terms of scaling, since we made this announcement we’re getting a significant number of requests to provide devices in these countries. We’re also getting a significant number of requests from organizations who want to tailgate with us to add a feature.

For example, when I was speaking at the Health 2.0 conference in San Francisco, we met an organization with the capacity to convert video content into any language. We said it would be great if we could make the information available in any language.  So we’re now discussing with them how to do it, but it needs a program director.  We are interviewing and are near a decision on someone who will be the director of this program. The candidate has a great international background, has been in the political field as an elected official, has an enormous number of contacts and has worked in these underserved communities.  I’m very pleased that the board has stepped forward to say we need to put some significant representation here.

Williams: It sounds like you’re starting with used devices, repurposing them and downloading apps onto them.  I imagine that internet connectivity is not a given, but on the other hand, perhaps it’s coming farther and wider.  Will you go beyond reference tools to make use of internet connectivity when it’s available?

Tramuto: Good question.  First of all, our work does not depend on internet connectivity.  It would be great if they have it because the devices can be updated daily with more information.  We have provided a concept in the Health eVillages organization that if in fact there is a community that has no electricity due to the disaster that occurred, we’ll ship out small generators with the devices and make sure that they can be charged.

The other thing to keep in mind is not just the repurposing of textbooks.  We have incorporated our proprietary Rx drug guide, which now has pictures and automation of dosing calculators. The feedback we’re getting is that they used to guess about the dosing.  Now they put the weight in, they put the drug in and they come back with the right dosages.

Our goal here is that we want not only a more just and peaceful community and world, we also want to make sure that people have access to safe and efficient and effective health care. That’s our ultimate goal.

Williams: Beyond your personal involvement, is Physicians Interactive as a company involvemed with Health eVillages?

Tramuto: Absolutely.  We have been one of the donors of devices. We have been a significant donor in terms of the cash contribution to launch this along with the other board members that I have mentioned to you.  The entire organization and I are very committed to this and true believers.

You have got to commercialize.  Obviously we’re a for-profit company.  We can’t do these things if we’re not commercializing them, but we do balance it with everyone’s responsibility to give back.  We’ve donated the website design.  We’ve donated the creativity that goes into this. There are scores of people in the organization who are working on this as well.

Williams: You mentioned contributions, both cash and in kind from board members.  If regular folk want to be involved by providing a cash donation or through other means, is there a mechanism for them to do that?

Tramuto: Yes there is. If they get on the Physicians Interactive website they’ll go right to Health eVillages.  Or they can get on the RFK Center’s site. We really do encourage folks to get involved.  It’s been very encouraging and uplifting over the last two weeks since we launched this that there has been an enormous response of people wanting to get involved and in fact, that’s how we identified our potential director.  So those two entry points would get folks connected to us and in contact with either myself or other folks.

Williams: I’ve been speaking today with Donato Tramuto, founder, CEO and vice chairman of Physicians Interactive. We’ve been discussing Health eVillages where he is co-founder.  Donato, thanks so much.

Tramuto: Thank you very much.



October 20, 2011

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