E-Health Summit Highlights Technology's Societal Role

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Technology has the potential to bridge an expanding gap between social classes, a roundtable of prominent executives, government and academic leaders said on campus yesterday.

The invitation-only e-Health Summit, a collaboration between UC Berkeley and Stanford University, brought speakers from around the country, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich said the federal government should provide computers with reading programs to every 3-year-old and, when they master these skills, give them computers with Internet access. He said this system of rewards will encourage children to learn how to read.

"Incentives work better than bureaucracy as a way of allocating resources," he said in an interview. "We're trying to translate ideas into public policy."

Gingrich said the United States' booming high-tech industry and constant flow of new ideas mean that the country must re-examine its health care industry and focus more on preventing illness.

"We need to rethink our entire vision of health and health care," he said. "The question is: how do we keep you healthy? We have to look at all the options available to us."

He said the federal government must work to bridge the digital divide, adding that the economy will benefit from universal Internet access.

"We have to ensure that every individual has computers and access to the Internet," he said. "If you conceptualize a world where you have Internet access, you have a dramatically different set of capabilities."

Participants in the forum said the technology industry produces a unique opportunity to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor.

"The divides that they face were there before we had this problem of technology," said Angela Blackwell, president of PolicyLink, a national nonprofit corporation geared toward building strong communities.

"Technology is the next best chance to be able to close this divide."

Other members said technology and access to information allow people to have more control over medical decisions.

"People have to be involved in making their own choices," said Leonard Syme, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of epidemiology. "If you're going to have social justice as it pertains to health, the digital divide must be bridged."

Syme said the "empowerment divide" is the real obstacle to incorporating the poor into the high-tech industry.

People who are confident they can solve problems are usually healthier, he said.

"What doesn't work is giving people information on posters," he said. "Telling people the facts and telling them louder is not going to motivate. We're talking about dignity."

Garnet Gruener, a founder of ClickStart, President Bill Clinton's government initiative to bridge the digital divide, said technology is rapidly becoming more affordable. ClickStart provides a federal subsidy to families to give them Internet access, he added.

He said universal Internet access will dramatically alter the scope of the federal government.

"The benefits will offset the initial costs," he said. "These Internet and communication technologies are changing the very nature of the industry. The net is changing the way we relate to all the aspects of our lives, including the government."


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