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February 26, 2018
Communities that connect stronger, live stronger…for longer!
By: Nataraj Kuntagod and Sanjay Podder

In a world bound closer with the power of digital technologies, today more people are “socially connected” than ever before. We are creating content, sharing ideas and information, and staying connected with friends and family on virtual communities and networks—24X7. During natural disasters, social media functions such as Safety Check on Facebook have added a new dimension to “social connectedness” by helping families know if their loved ones are safe during or after a natural disaster, for example.

No hashtags in a “real” socially connected world! 

Social connectedness, indeed, is all about the relationships people cultivate with others—friends, family and the communities in which they live and work. However, “real” social connectedness goes much beyond the virtual world by enabling people to extend and receive information and emotional support, and creating a sense of belonging. When people develop social connections, it builds a community of support that can positively impact the health and wellbeing of entire communities. Now imagine using digital technologies to replicate the free exchange of ideas from the virtual world to rural areas challenged by social stereotypes, low levels of education and intermittent connectivity. The results can be path breaking in influencing social behaviors, positively impacting health outcomes and driving lasting social change.

For example, in developing countries, a leading cause of mortality for adolescent girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years is pregnancy- and childbirth-related complications. Governments and non-government organizations, both in the developing and developed world, are driving targeted programs to improve maternal health. However, these programs have some ground to cover in recognizing the lack of women’s autonomy in reproductive decision-making and low involvement from men in reproductive health issues. A “peer support-led community approach” enabled by technology has the potential to fill this gap.

Couple Power: Achieving better maternal health, one couple at a time!

“Couple Power” is a joint research effort led by Accenture Labs, the Child in Need Institute and the International Center for Research on Women, supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Couple Power has piloted a digital solution across 64 villages in the Indian state of Jharkhand to improve maternal and family health. Women in one-third of the districts in this predominantly tribal state have little or no influence in family planning. Instead of targeting only women to drive better maternal health outcomes, the Couple Power project uses a “peer-couple-to-couple approach (PCCA).” PCCA leverages digital technologies such as expert systems on the mobile, machine learning and voice-driven emotion analytics to engage both women and men in promoting gender equality within their relationships and positively influence maternal health outcomes.

The role of technology in putting women at the center of family planning decision making

Couple Power program coordinators use the Accenture digital application to identify and track vulnerable couples in their districts. This is done through a mobile application that considers a couple’s age at the time of marriage, literacy level and spacing between children, among other factors to identify vulnerabilities. In addition, it uses a set of pre-defined rules to identify the Lead Peer Couples (LPCs) based on factors such as their age, education level and leadership traits. Each LPC is assigned 20 peer couples based on age, distance and similar demographics through an algorithm on the mobile device. The application is designed to work in areas with low connectivity and is built for cognitive simplicity that enables program coordinators to easily roll the survey, collect data and avoid unconscious bias in selecting vulnerable couples and LPCs. Once the behavior change results in a measurable improvement in maternal health outcomes, advanced machine learning algorithms can replace these initial set of algorithms.

The LPCs educate the couples about family planning and its many health-related and economic benefits in peer meetings. Using voice analytics, program coordinators can evaluate and quantify the effectiveness of these sessions and plan interventions. Currently, the project is covering 120 LPCs who have been trained to act as role models and teachers for more than 2,700 participating peer couples to change gender norms and roles.

Building “life-long” social connections

Social connectedness can also prove to be beneficial in managing chronic diseases by bringing together patients to create a support network of like-minded people who can influence positive health behaviors. It’s a reality that while non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are the leading cause of mortality and morbidity in the world, more than 80 percent of premature heart disease, stroke and diabetes can be prevented through lifestyle and wellness-related interventions. Also, people living with chronic diseases need support in embracing and sustaining behaviors necessary to lead a healthy life. However, one-on-one support from caregivers can be expensive or is not easy to extend due to overburdened healthcare systems. For example, in the United States, 60 percent of doctors spend between 13–24 minutes per interaction for chronic diseases, while in India this consultation lasts just two minutes. Without sustained support from caregivers—both for preventive and curative care—chronic conditions cannot be treated effectively, leading to expensive hospitalizations and adverse health outcomes.

Moreover, some NCDs like diabetes, for example, need to be self-managed outside the doctor’s office through a sustained change in lifestyle and regular self-monitoring. Peer support that leverages local community resources to influence behavioral changes in dealing with NCDs can be more effective and less expensive due to similarities in food habits, education level, disease symptoms and treatment, socio-economic situation and language.

In the future, digital technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) hold the potential to revolutionize healthcare—both for patients and caregivers. Imagine using AR to take consultation to a new level by helping a caregiver see through the eyes of a patient and share the patient’s perspective. Or, a patient describing symptoms accurately with the help of AR. Indeed, technology can help amplify the benefits of community-led health programs to the last mile and implement them at scale for underserved communities. This, in its essence, is “real” social connectedness at play!

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