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Posts Tagged ‘Economist’

Photo credit: Economist

Photo credit: Economist

I love free stuff. Who doesn’t? Even if I know I’m never gonna wear that XXL fluorescent green t-shirt, I’ll still take it. And if it’s something I actually can use (free iPod, anyone?)… well, all the better. I may even do something slightly uncharacteristic — say, sing in public — if the reward is good enough.

This is the thinking the folks at MIT’s famed D-Lab (Development Lab) — specifically, at Innovations in International Health — employed when they devised “X out TB. ” They rightly identified lack of patient compliance as one of the biggest obstacles to making tuberculosis treatment effective. Basically, patients need to take their daily course for 6 months in order to prevent nasty drug resistance and relapse. The problem is, people often don’t like taking their medicine, even if there’s a spoonful of sugar involved. Most TB symptoms disappear after month 2-ish, and the medicine can cause unpleasant side effects like nausea, diarrhea, and orange-colored urine.

According to this week’s Economist, MIT’s researchers used the weird orange pee phenomenon to their advantage. They created a device that changes color only if the urine shows traces of certain chemicals (the same ones that make it orange in the first place). And if it does, magic happens: a code appears that the patient can type into their cell phones, to avail of free minutes! Way cooler than anything Mary Poppins could ever offer.

The team is currently working on making the reward applicable to a wider audience (e.g., many women in Pakistan do not use mobile phones, and thus may be better incentivized by free food). I’m pretty impressed, though. If the X out TB team can make this financially sustainable, they could change the face of TB treatment forever.

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Trust this week’s Economist to seamlessly link animal behavior to the political decision-making process (for the record, I have been spotted waxing poetic about The Economist’s cutting insight, breath-taking worldliness, and amazing dry wit). If you have a minute, check out Decisions, Decisions, an article in their Science and Technology section.

The article essentially synthesizes a few recent scientific experiments with appetizing social animals like worker bees, cockroaches, and ants, and briefly discusses potential implications on political bodies like the European Parliament. It’s fascinating, really — across these species, scientists have found that the best decisions are made by a group of independently-formed opinions, and that leaders heavily rely on trust from all those “below” (in terms of social hierarchy). An imposed decision from a singular source, regardless of how informed s/he may be, has not proven to be as powerful as a group of moderately-informed bodies. Sorry, Chavez.

None of this is particularly revolutionary in the world of politics (does ancient Greece ring a bell?), but I like the reminder that independent opinion formation is an indispensable element of the democratic process. And that democratic decisions can be made and inculcated into a group even during the implementation process.

I’m curious to know how — if at all — these theories can be baked into Obama’s economic stimulus plan, which, last I heard, wasn’t receiving quite as much Republican support as the Dems envisioned. And how (again, if at all) these theories can be used to give the UN a bit more bite. Ideas, anyone?

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