How Social Media Can Make Healthcare Systems More Inclusive
One of the most important things to come out of the COVID-19 health crisis is the rising popularity of telemedicine. More health practitioners have adopted this as a way to help treat and advise patients for low-level health concerns, while limiting their exposure and touchpoints. However, this technology is not yet universal. Many communities around the world have limited healthcare options, but one organization is trying to change that.
Dr. Jiska van der Reest, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School, is the CEO of GOViral, which develops digital healthcare solutions to combat the cycle of hepatitis B transmission. The world may be focused on COVID-19, but as Dr. van der Reest tells CircleAround, “The hepatitis B virus has actually been a pandemic for decades.” She notes that, in the Philippines, it’s most often passed from mother to child.
The World Health Organization estimates that in 2015, 257 million people were living with chronic hepatitis B infection. Their research indicates that an estimated 80 to 90 percent of infants infected during the first year of life develop chronic infections compared to less than 5 percent if contracted as an adult. This is why it’s so crucial to become educated about the condition, the long-term effects, and most importantly, to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
The research is out there and so is preventative action. That's why Dr. van der Reest and her team chose to pursue this condition over others. They focus on the Philippines because Southeast Asia has some of the highest rates of hepatitis B, and, in particular, it is highest in rural Filipino communities.
Part of the GOViral solution is the development of a user-friendly chatbot interface, which, according to Dr. van der Reest, “provides culturally appropriate, evidence-based knowledge transfer for behavior change,” and allows anyone within the country to access health education and advice without needing to travel to a clinic.
Dr. van der Reest and her team, a majority of whom are Filipino, train local healthcare workers to respond to inquiries and provide counsel for those who may require additional assistance.
Dr. van der Reest made the comparison to the healthcare systems of America and Europe. “Access to healthcare is often not really on our minds,” she tells CircleAround. “You just go to the doctor and make your appointment. But there are so many barriers across the world around accessing healthcare. The awareness of hepatitis B as a health threat is very limiting, both in the general population but also among healthcare workers. There is a lot of stigma and discrimination.”
GOViral’s technology combats those stigmas by providing education and screenings, especially for women, which allows mothers to help vaccinate their newborns in a timely manner. However, there’s more benefit to what GOViral can do than just build awareness. This technology can ultimately harvest health data for areas in the Philippines that most need tests, antiretroviral medicine, and vaccines. Dr. van der Reest hopes to use this information to create a database and help “guide national hepatitis B management strategies.”
“Social media is a really great way to increase awareness,” Dr. van der Reest notes. One of their programs is centered around connecting people with government support programs and funding. But this requires a lot of paperwork and navigation, which can be challenging.
“Our community manager created this patient community in his city,” Dr. van der Reest adds, “and all communication is through Facebook Messenger. He helps coordinate filling out the forms and organizing these health check-up dates with the local hospital, how many people per day can make use of these services, and making sure that everyone shows up.”
While GOViral’s programming increases awareness and access to health education for many people living in the Philippines, the outbreak of COVID-19 presented a new set of challenges. “Ninety percent of those living with hepatitis B do not even know that they have it, and they are at risk of progressive liver failure, and liver cancer,” Dr. van der Reest tells CircleAround. “I am very concerned that all these lockdowns and the lack of funds will further restrict access to healthcare.”
The GOViral team hasn’t lost hope, however. They continue to monitor the work they’ve begun from around the world, and look forward to developing more resources for communities in need.
"Social media and the Internet is a huge equalizer,” Dr. van der Reest concludes. “Telehealth saves time and money. It is better for the environment. I think it lowers the barrier due to asking for medical assistance that maybe you would not have done if you would have to go there in person. Of course, it cannot replace everything… But this is really, I think kind of a revolution.”
July 28 is World Hepatitis Day. Visit The Task Force for Global Health to donate to the cause and to learn more.