social technology and human health

Topics: Technology, Tuberculosis, Public health Pages: 48 (13605 words) Published: December 8, 2013
Social technology and human health
David E. Bloom1, River Path Associates2 and Karen Fang3

July 2001


Harvard School of Public Health. Email: UK-based knowledge consultancy. Web: Email: 3
Department of Cell Biology, Harvard Medical School. Email: 2


Table of Contents

Lessons from the past
All to gain, nothing to lose
Three themes: discovery, development and distribution
Understanding technology


“Standardized packages of treatment”
The forgotten plague
The first battle
The second battle
The third battle
Knowledge, health and wealth

Three The problems we face
A challenge refused
Knowledge is not enough
The failure of science
Public goods and private benefits
A new model

Social Technology
Crucial questions
Public and private
Big tech/small tech
Only connect
Social Technology


This paper sets out to explore the relationship between technology and health. Part One of the paper uses the history of penicillin to demonstrate how the complex processes involved in getting a new technology to market are at least as important as the technology itself. Penicillin went through three stages: discovery, development and distribution – each crucial to the drug’s success. The discovery of the technology would have been useless without effective systems for both turning it into a usable package and ensuring that doctors and their patients could gain access to it. Part Two expands the idea that technology alone has little impact on health. The 20th century struggle against tuberculosis (TB) highlights the part society can play in improving its health. Knowledge of the causes of TB helped people to mobilize against the disease, with impressive results. The discovery of a vaccine reinforced society’s efforts and was instrumental in driving the disease down to vanishingly small levels, but it also led to public complacency and the latter part of the century saw TB on the rise again. The third section of the paper shows how society’s efforts to improve health must be backed up by governments. Contrasting results in the global battle against HIV/AIDS highlight the importance of strategic government action directed at making the best use of technology. Governments have a vital role to play both in steering the development of new technologies and facilitating their use. Again, technology by itself will not solve health problems – its interaction with all levels of society is the key to its success. Part Four of the paper delves further into the idea that governments must take a strategic view on technology. It examines the potential of public/private partnerships for developing technology, as well the scope for new technologies such as information technology and the internet for empowering people to take control of their health. The paper concludes that, although technology has had some astonishing successes in the last 100 years, these achievements have been facilitated by society’s use of them. The concept of “social technology” places technology at the center of the myriad of social forces that mediate its use. The advances created by technology, it argues, “can truly be transformative – it is the job of ‘social technology’ to make sure that they are.”



Lessons from the past
All to gain, nothing to lose
On 17 January 1941, Mrs. Elva Akers, a 50 year-old woman with terminal breast cancer, was given 100 mg of penicillin. She was the first person ever to be given a purified version of the new antibiotic. After the injection, intended to establish whether the drug was toxic to humans, Mrs. Akers “at once said she had a curious musty taste in her mouth, but otherwise suffered no harm.” (Fletcher, 1984). As a result, the drug was declared ready for its first therapeutic test.

Penicillin research team member Charles Fletcher reports that the first...

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