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High-tech Humanitarian

Physician and entrepreneur Vikram Kumar founded a company that makes software to help patients and doctors manage chronic disease.
September 30, 2004

Vikram Kumar, president and CEO of Dimagi, received Technology Reviews annual Technology in the Service of Humanity award Wednesday at the magazines Emerging Technologies Conference. Kumar, 28, was honored for the small healthcare informatics companys work in developing computer software that helps health workers and patients manage chronic diseases such as HIV and diabetes. He was chosen from among the TR100a group of 100 innovators under age 35 that the magazine selected for the potential of their work to transform the world.

A resident physician training in clinical pathology at Bostons Brigham and Womens Hospital, Kumar started Dimagi while still in medical school. His goal: to make health information more useful to patients so that they could be more centrally involved with their own care. One of our biggest problems in medicine is to motivate patients to take a medication, exercise, improve their dietsvery straightforward things, Kumar says. He believes that simple, intuitive, portable, and fun-to-use computer programs can improve adherence to such regimens. We are looking at ways we can give patients data on their conditions, and trying to create techniques that will get patients to actually use that information in their own care, he says.

The problems that Dr. Kumar solves seem intractable, said Technology Review editor in chief Jason Pontin. We were excited to see someone come up with elegant, simple, cheap technical solutions that have made a huge difference to people whose lives are very, very difficult.

One such solution is HIV Confidant, a PDA-based system being used in South Africa to encourage people to be tested for HIV/AIDS. Confidentiality is a big barrier to testing in Africa, Kumar says, because patients dont trust their data is secure. Using standard encryption methods, HIV Confidant allows anonymous testing in the most remote locations. Healthcare workers can go into villages and administer HIV tests, giving patients a card with a unique ID afterwards. They return later with the results; only after the patient enters his or her ID does the data become visible. Dimagi is now working on software to help AIDS patients manage their disease by monitoring blood counts confidentially.

Kumar also helped design a mobile electronic medical record system that mobile outreach workers are using in rural India. Working with researchers at Media Lab Asia and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Dimagi developed the handheld software application to help standardize healthcare across villages; adoption of the software has improved data collection, scheduling of immunizations, and recording of routine demographic changes in the community. The program has a special emphasis on care for children and pregnant women. The software was designed to be easy to use by someone who has never seen a computer before, Kumar says. The nurses trained themselves to use it inside an hour, he adds. Healthcare workers now use the system to record and manage data from more than 70,000 patients.

In the long run, Kumar hopes his management systems will help keep people healthy. Diagnostic tests are becoming smaller and better, giving doctors unprecedented amounts of data about patients. What were lacking, Kumar says, is ways to tie all this new technology into interaction with the patient. Dimagis software is designed to do just that. And combined with cheap, easy-to-access diagnostics and computer models that predict how diseases will develop, Kumars programs may help patients and doctors achieve his ultimate goal: keeping people out of hospitals altogether.

Were going to be a millionaire of a different sort, Kumar said, accepting the award. Were going to try to affect the lives of a million people.

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