“The average American 16-year-old has more access to current health and medical information through their AOL account than most doctors practicing in Africa will ever have, and they are facing some of the world’s greatest medical challenges,” says Holly Ladd, executive director for SatelLife, a nonprofit global health-care advocacy group based in Watertown, Mass.
Since 1987, SatelLife has applied a variety of technologies to rectify that information imbalance. SatelLife uses satellites, radios and the Internet to disseminate medical information each week to more than 20,000 physicians in 150 developing countries that typically spend less money per person, per year on health care than an American spends for an extra value meal ($5) at McDonald’s. Earning an average of $250 per month, these physicians can’t afford subscriptions to medical journals, which Ladd says can cost $1,000 a year.
In the days before the Internet, SatelLife used two low-Earth-orbit satellites to maintain e-mail connectivity. The satellites orbited the Earth anywhere from three to 14 times every day. As they passed over countries where the physicians were practicing, they communicated with ground stations using two FM channels to upload e-mail from local computers to SatelLife’s primary computer in Boston and to download content from SatelLife’s home base to local computers.
Today, dial-up networks and local Internet access have replaced satellite ground stations. Instead of using low-Earth-orbit satellites, SatelLife uses geostationary satellites that remain parked over the continents where SatelLife provides medical content and electronic discussion groups. The geostationary satellites also send radio broadcasts such as the BBC to portable radios on the ground. “If you connect the radio to a computer, it becomes a modem, enabling us to send large volumes of text material to computers on the ground,” Ladd says. “If we can give them one piece of information every week that helps with patient care that saves one life, then we have found a compelling way to use information technology.”