Monday, June 5, 2017

Why West isn't best

As I explore the spread of Western medical technology, most of the places I will be visiting are places that extend beyond the scope of what is "Western". Particularly in the realm of science, "Western"is associated with good. With right. With logic. With evidence. 

As a product of these traditions, practices, and curriculum, I do not and cannot discount them. While we have honed our ability to conquer illnesses that afflicted many only decades ago, I feel it has come at a cost. Our successes have led to an unhealthy hubris. A belief that "we", the West, can fix everything. Whether that is true or not is not the question. There are countless examples of ways in which advances made in the West address fundamental challenges in providing healthcare in low resources settings around the world. There exists, however, a distinction between the capacity to provide and the capacity to deliver. 

The most significant differences between the successes at home and the failures abroad (and at home for that matter) is the inability to recognize the varied contexts in which technology is applied. It is easy to talk about the disparities and differences in financial, human, and social capital around the world. However, to design technology without knowing those for whom it is intended significantly hinders progress.

What's the point of a new test for malaria if people can't afford it? What if it requires a trained professional to utilize it? What if it requires an instrument requiring constant electricity to confirm results? What if it's unstable above room temperature? What if the medium of administration is taboo amongst a certain people? 

The many questions that must be answered for a technology to appropriately meet the needs of the end user are nuanced and consequential. We are quick to think that awareness equates to an understanding of the preferences, wants, needs, and limitations of a particular setting, a setting that most have not been too. To do so is a disservice to engineers everywhere.

Consequently, solutions are only solutions if they are used. The failures of engineers are less often technical (thank god) and more often, as an umbrella term, practical. Tests work, technology works, but people don't. These failures cannot be met with disdain or reinforced faith in solving challenges from our ivory tower. Delivering technology is as much the responsibility of engineers as is providing technology in the first place. Travelling provides the opportunity to connect these dots.
A quick overview of where I plan to go.