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Senior to improve global health systems with mobile technology

May 04, 2009

Isaac Holeman ’09 is heading to Africa after graduation. Far from a safari vacation, Holeman will start work in Malawi with FrontlineSMS:Medic, a venture he co-founded to support community health workers in the developing world with mobile technology.

A biochemistry and molecular biology major, Holeman has earned numerous academic honors in his time at Lewis & Clark, including membership in the prestigious Pamplin Society of Fellows as well as being named a Rogers Scholar. Most recently, Holeman received a fellowship from the Compton Foundation’s Mentor Fellowship Program, which promotes the creativity, commitment, and service of ten graduating seniors across the country with the funding to implement a self-directed project.

Holeman hopes his project will aid communities with little infrastructure, where the transmission of basic yet life-saving information still depends on health workers walking up to 100 miles. By integrating a free program that turns a laptop and a mobile phone into a central communications hub and an electronic medical record system, the FrontlineSMS:Medic team will help to link workers in the field with health centers and hospitals.

“Isaac’s project is extremely innovative and will help launch him on what we all know will be an extraordinary career in public health,” said Professor of Economics Eban Goodstein.

As commencement nears, Holeman talks about how he has prepared for this work and shares his hopes for the project and the future.

Can you explain a bit about FrontlineSMS:Medic and what you’ll be doing for the organization?

A few months ago, I began working on a project using cell phones to empower community health workers in poor rural areas, mostly in East Africa. My initial vision was to give cell phones to health workers so that they could send text messages to doctors, and also write a program that would enable them to access electronic medical records with their phones. Since I started out, the project has grown a lot; I’ve teamed up with other students here at Lewis & Clark, as well as the undergraduate and medical schools at Stanford, and we decided to launch under the name FrontlineSMS:Medic. We’ve lined up some really great clinical partners, so we’ll be setting up this technology with at least 15 global health organizations across several continents in the next year. I’ll spend most of the year based out of Malawi, working with several health centers there, as well as directing implementation across the globe via e-mail and Skype.

How have your classes or extracurricular experiences at Lewis & Clark prepared you for this work?

I’m a biochemistry and molecular biology major. If I had not been a part of this rigorous, very challenging major, I just don’t think I would have the confidence to do what I’m doing right now. I have had some incredible experiences working with technology with friends here on campus, as well as with the vibrant open-source tech community in Portland. I used to think my fascination with technology was just a hobby. It was only recently that I discovered the field of global health informatics and realized that I could design a career that would bring together technology, information, and global health. Finally, studying abroad in Havana, The Netherlands, and Guatemala were all important experiences that prepared me to begin planning FrontlineSMS:Medic.

What other international experiences have you participated in, and what impact have those experiences had on you?

Choosing to study in The Netherlands between high school and college was probably the best decision I’ve ever made. When I finished high school, I was relatively egocentric and narrow minded, and, frankly, that lifestyle was not making me very happy. While abroad in Holland, I ended up selecting Lewis & Clark for it’s global and political ethos, and I’ve been thinking more and more about global citizenship since then. After my sophomore year, I spent about two months in Guatemala, learning Spanish and participating in a human rights delegation that taught me a lot about the practice of human rights (which is worlds away from the philosophy or scholarship of human rights). Just a few weeks after returning to The States, I left again for Havana, Cuba, with about 25 other LC students and a professor of sociology. I spent most of the semester conducting an ethnography at a walk-in clinic in downtown Havana. It was my first extensive qualitative research project, and a fascinating peek at a health system that is very different from our own.

You’ve been an advocate for health care reform in this country by working with the Archimedes Movement. You were also a vocal supporter of the Obama campaign. What changes do you hope to see in the sector in the next few years?

My freshman year at Lewis & Clark I started working with the Archimedes Movement and learning from visionary leaders like Liz Baxter and former Governor John Kitzhaber. For about four years, we’ve been trying to inject one big idea into the health care debate: the way we finance health care is distinct from the way we deliver it. Changing the financing mechanism alone will not get us out of this mess. Changing the structure of our delivery system will not be easy—one in 11 jobs in our economy is related to health care, and it’s not surprising that hard-working people want to keep their jobs. If we want to make our country viable again, patients and providers will need to commit to being citizens first and stake-holders second. This idea is not mainstream yet, but it’s increasingly common in policy circles, and I fervently hope that President Obama will make it a pillar of our health reform agenda.

Given the growing need for human services and funding challenges, how do you hope to make a difference?

I’m carving out a path in global health informatics, and I’d like to spend my career cultivating entrepreneurial educational systems that address real problems rather than just training people to get high paying jobs. For the next year, my work with FrontlineSMS:Medic will be supported by a Compton Mentor Fellowship, and subsequently I’ll attend medical school. I will definitely continue to engage in the political process, but I’m probably too unconventional in my political philosophies to run for elected office under either of the dominant political parties in the U.S. I can imagine working with the World Health Organization, but who knows? For now, I’m content working hard and listening intently for the coy knock of opportunity.

For more information:

Emily Miller
Public Relations Coordinator


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