As a physician working in the East End of London, I am familiar with medically under-served populations. Yet when I began volunteering my time and my company's resources with Special Olympics and its Healthy Athletes Programme nearly a decade ago, I was shocked and saddened by the extent of the lack of proper healthcare seen among the athletes with learning disabilities.
Healthy Athletes offers athletes free health screenings as well as free services like prescription eyewear, hearing aids, and other health related products, services and education. As global partner, Health One Global designed and manage what has become the world's richest, largest database of health parameters of people with a learning disability.
At the most recent Special Olympics World Games in Athens last summer, 3,751 athletes from 160 countries received free health screenings. Our findings were shocking. Some 66% failed eye screening, 22% failed hearing screening, 46% had untreated dental decay, 69% had gait abnormalities, 20% needed a follow-up hearing test, 15% needed urgent dental treatment, 8% had raised blood pressure and needed urgent followup.
And these are elite athletes who travelled internationally to a global sports competition. If they cannot receive proper care for their teeth, we can only fear for their undetected or untreated diabetes, heart disease, lung disease or kidney disease.
Thankfully, with more than 4 million athletes in 170 countries participating in more than 50,000 events annually, Special Olympics has the global reach to take action.
Still there is a missing piece. If information is power, it must be put in the hands of the athletes. We cannot leave it to healthcare services alone to meet their needs.
Special Olympics is pioneering an internet-based personal health record to empower athletes and their families to transform co-ordination of care, change behaviours and optimise their own health outcomes using mobile health to overcome the barriers of disability, poverty, education, literacy, age, race and gender.
Automatic messages to athletes' mobile phones, driven by their personal health record, will follow up the significant problems found at screenings, assess the impact on athletes of services delivered and deliver health promotion material. Since athletes with long-term conditions (such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease or epilepsy) are often poorly followed up we will embed personal care pathways in their record to generate automatic alerts and reminders direct to their mobile phone.
Special Olympics embraces the power of mobile health and we have run pilots in the US and South Africa. We surveyed 2,281 athletes in Athens and 42% worldwide already have their own personal mobile phone including 55% in Europe.
In the UK we will begin at the Special Olympics Great Britain national games in 2013.
Special Olympics athletes' needs mirror those of many other disadvantaged populations, irrespective of the cause. This Special Olympics solution could transform the health outcomes of other disadvantaged populations.
As the Paralympic Games open here in London, it's important that we keep alive the Olympic spirit of creating a better world through equity and fair play. Elevating the health status of all people, regardless of ability, is the best way for physicians to do just that.