Humanitarian Computing

 Humanitarian Computing

October 5, 2017

There are many places in the world that are too remote, too poor, or too embroiled in conflict to provide basic human services—including healthcare. Instead of doctor’s offices or hospitals, medical services are often provided by traveling volunteers or even local figures such as school teachers. As one would expect, this dearth of medical knowledge, diagnosis, and treatment affects the wellness of the populace in many troubling ways. Fortunately, the rapid adoption of technology provides new opportunities to provide better care in these places, and computer scientists are in a unique position to help.

Through research and philanthropy, Professor Chilukuri Mohan and his students are developing ways to use software to provide improved healthcare to underserved populations. “I believe that the availability of adequate healthcare is a fundamental right of every individual, and the proper application of technology can improve healthcare access for all,” says Mohan.

One of the key problems he aims to address is the lack of medical records. With no consistent health provider, patients often have incomplete or nonexistent documentation of their past health and treatments. What records do exist are paper documents and are left to the patient to keep on file. There is no medical scenario in which this lack of information is ideal, but in cases where patients require emergency care, the consequences can be dire. For example, if an unconscious patient without medical records needs emergency care, they cannot provide information pertinent for determining the best treatment. Without this knowledge, a doctor’s actions can sometimes harm the patient instead of helping.

To address this, Mohan and his team are designing a robust electronic healthcare record system that puts the records in the hands of the patients and their chosen proxies. Their goal is to give patients and their doctors the ability to use inexpensive and widely available computer hardware and storage devices with simple software interfaces—such as smartphones and tablets— to access these valuable records.

Mohan says, “Our students can help develop such software. Students need to know what it takes to build a large software system, and working on a real-life project can significantly enhance their abilities.”

In India, he envisions the possibility of connecting this information to an emerging identification system, similar to the United States’ social security identification system. By providing each citizen with secure private storage associated with their ID number, every individual’s medical records could be stored and made available when needed. Patients would only need to provide healthcare professionals and volunteers with an access code to review and update their records through personal devices.

In a recent publication, “The Role of Health Informatics in Volunteer Supported Healthcare for Underserved Populations,” Mohan and Dayaprasad Kulkarni, a physician with many years of experience in healthcare volunteering, address the requirements for such a system. They address the challenges of sharing information with multiple healthcare providers, patient privacy, interfacing with multiple platforms, robustness, ease of use by people with limited technical skills, and extensibility.

With this work and other active initiatives, Mohan and Kulkarni help deploy healthcare solutions for underserved populations through an organization called AarogyaSeva. AarogyaSeva is an international humanitarian group dedicated to providing healthcare services that provides volunteer services in seven countries. Mohan serves as the academic mentor and advisor of engineering affairs on their executive team and Kulkarni is the founder and director. The organization provides a platform for the development and deployment of medical technology that allows engineers and computer scientists to contribute directly to providing affordable medical technology.

In addition to deploying medical volunteers and addressing medical records, the organization produces 3D printed prosthetic hands for children, developing tools to facilitate remote healthcare using smartphones (such as an e-stethoscope), and provides logistical assistance for disaster relief efforts. In another instance of applying new technology to healthcare, Mohan and Kulkarni are exploring the development of low cost virtual reality tools to help treat patients without convenient access to a doctor’s office.

“Let’s say a person has something on his skin. It could be poison ivy or acne. It may also be melanoma. For triage, a volunteer can take pictures of the blemish from different angles and send it to doctors. At the doctor’s office, which could be anywhere in the world, software can take the multiple images and make them into a 3D image of the arm and skin to facilitate accurate diagnosis. If it is something of concern, then the doctor can tell the patient if they need to get the nearest hospital.”

In every initiative, AarogyaSeva and its volunteers prove that the technical skills learned in classrooms at Syracuse University can have a significant impact in unexpected disciplines—even bolstering humanitarian efforts a world away.

Mohan said, “Computer science isn’t just about writing code. Exposing our students to projects like these shows them that their computer science knowledge can be put to use helping people around them and making the world a better place, in very direct ways.”


Matt Wheeler
Communications Manager