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Health

This UK Aid Project Trains Volunteers to Detect Diabetes With an App in Rural Thailand

Why Global Citizens Should Care:
The UN’s Global Goal 3 calls for universal health care coverage because, without affordable access to diagnosis and treatment, people end up suffering from life-threatening conditions without even knowing about them. Diabetes is one such disease that can be managed if it’s identified and treated — but if not, it can cause blindness, kidney failure, and heart attacks. That’s why training people to spot the signs, and expand access to care, can make such a difference. To find out more, and take action on health care issues and to support UK aid, join us here.

Hollywood royalty Tom Hanks and Halle Berry have more in common than meets the eye.

Sure, they both appeared in The Simpsons; shared the big screen in Cloud Atlas; and both look really great on boats. However, they’re also two human beings who have achieved astonishing things in Hollywood — while also living with diabetes.

In the United States, it’s relatively simple to access support for diabetes with the right health coverage. But if Hanks or Berry had been born in a different region, their diabetes could have caused blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, or worse — indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that in 2016, diabetes resulted in 1.6 million deaths.

You can’t treat diabetes unless it’s been diagnosed, and if the resources or expertise aren’t available to do so, it can be fatal. In 1989, while filming the TV show Living Dolls, Halle Berry fell into a diabetic coma. It shouldn’t have to come to that before you get properly diagnosed.

That’s why The George Institute for Global Health — an international medical research institute headquartered in Sydney and with centres in Beijing, Delhi, and London — has been working in collaboration with the Thai Ministry of Public Health to develop ideas for detecting and managing diabetes in rural Thailand, funded by the British government’s lifesaving UK aid budget.

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In many poor communities, especially outside of populous urban centres, there are just not enough doctors to go round.

So the programme, which runs in Thailand’s Kamphaeng Phet Province, works to train non-physician health workers and village health volunteers to diagnose and treat type two diabetes instead.

The health workers are taught to use an app, via a tablet or smartphone, with which they can record patient data like age, weight, and blood pressure. If the patient is in danger, the device will tell the worker what the next steps should be, whether that’s lifestyle advice or prescribing medicine.

The app examines all the potential risks to the patient before dispensing recommendations, takes a look at their family history, and connects the data to their health record so that, if necessary, they can be referred to hospital.

And, ta-da! Just like that, health workers have been taught to use technology that can help keep local people on top of their health — and detect any signs of type two diabetes before it becomes an issue. Otherwise, many people would have just gone without a checkup.

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The funding comes from a £365,200 grant awarded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) — the government department that, among other things, is now responsible for spending the UK’s aid budget.

The UK aid budget is the only government budget dedicated to ending extreme poverty around the world, with extreme poverty meaning you live on less than $1.90 a day. The health of a country is critical to that fight: if you have undiagnosed diabetes, that can severely hamper your ability to get a job, go to school, and lift yourself out of poverty.

And this is especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic — with evidence suggesting that people with diabetes suffer far more severe outcomes.


This story is part of a new series from Global Citizen called “UK Aid Works” — a collection of stories about health care development projects supported by Britain’s aid budget, collated by Action for Global Health UK (AfGH), an influential membership network convening more than 50 organisations working in global health.

In September, the Department for International Development (DfID) merged with the Foreign Office (FCO) to form the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO). At a time when the future of poverty-focused aid is under threat, it’s crucial that we hold onto programmes like these that focus on the world’s most vulnerable people. These stories are about the types of initiatives that we must strive to protect. You can check out more stories like this here — and call on the foreign secretary to ensure that aid is transparent and accountable here.