Obituaries

Dr. Marc Mitchell, a pioneer of digital health care for the world’s poorest patients, dies at 70

Dr. Mitchell, a lecturer at Harvard’s School of Public Health, created a group that sought to improve diagnoses and care.
Dr. Mitchell, a lecturer at Harvard’s School of Public Health, created a group that sought to improve diagnoses and care.

An inveterate traveler and a compassionate physician, Dr. Marc Mitchell saw first-hand how so many of the world’s poorest people have little access to what they need when they become ill.

“I know that we can deliver high-quality care to every patient, but I also know that in many parts of the world, that goal is elusive,” he once said. “It’s important to me that people everywhere, no matter where they live, have access to good care.”

Early in the development of handheld digital devices, beginning with PalmPilots before smartphones were commonplace, Dr. Mitchell started using technology as an effective tool for medicine. The devices could deliver expert guidance to community workers in rural, underdeveloped areas where doctors almost never practiced.

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Dr. Mitchell, who had worked in more than 40 countries, was visiting Denali National Park in Alaska for the first time and was on a hike when he collapsed and died June 25 of an apparent heart attack. He was 70 and had been a lecturer at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health for the past two decades.

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Fifteen years ago, he founded D-tree International, an organization that uses developments in technology to improve health care among many of the world’s least-served patients — including mothers giving birth and their newborns.

The organization estimates that its programs have reached more than 2 million people in 16 nations through the efforts of some 10,000 health care workers, many of them in communities that may never host a trained physician.

“Marc was someone who had a vision, and he believed that we could make the world a better place,” said Erica Layer, who succeeded Dr. Mitchell as CEO of D-tree when he stepped down last year.

Dr. Michael Reich, a professor of international health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that Dr. Mitchell “was a great teacher, great innovator, great practitioner, and great friend.”

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As Dr. Mitchell filled those roles, he remained focused on training subsequent generations of public health physicians and workers and fine-tuning the ways D-tree could improve health care for the disenfranchised on a global scale.

“He was really dedicated to students. He was dedicated to teaching, and he was dedicated to creating innovations that would make a difference to some of the poorest people in the world,” Reich said. “And in addition, he cared about scientifically evaluating those innovations to show that they made a difference.”

In a video D-tree has posted on YouTube, Dr. Mitchell said the organization provides phones to health workers “that they are able to use as a tool as they see a patient, so they know what questions to ask, what diagnosis is appropriate for this patient.”

Data gathered by those community health care workers, he added, are “then provided to their supervisor, to program managers, to national program managers, so they know what every health worker is doing and what types of health problems they’re seeing in the community.”

Studies have shown that this approach vastly improves the chances of making a correct diagnosis, he said.

Dr. Mitchell, meeting in 2015 with a family in a rural village near Shinyanga, Tanzania.
Ueli Litscher
Dr. Mitchell, meeting in 2015 with a family in a rural village near Shinyanga, Tanzania.
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Though his route to public health of this nature took a few turns between college and creating D-tree, Dr. Mitchell was always interested in visiting places distant from his Greater Boston upbringing. He had planned to see the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia in 1970, the year he graduated from Harvard.

He left Harvard “on the day the US invaded Cambodia,” he wrote for the 25th anniversary report of his class. “Having spent months arranging to skip final exams and travel around the world, I was dismayed to find out that final exams were ultimately canceled and that Angkor Wat was off my itinerary. I guess there is a lesson here.”

Life could be unpredictable — a lesson he had already experienced.

The younger of two siblings, Marc David Mitchell was born in Newton-Wellesley Hospital on Sept. 1, 1948, the son of Harry Mitchell, an attorney who owned a small manufacturing business, and Sara Mazonson, a homemaker.

Dr. Mitchell, who was 9 when his father died and 14 when his mother died, grew up in Brighton and Brookline, living with extended family in adolescence.

He graduated from the Cambridge School of Weston before receiving a bachelor’s degree from Harvard. In the summer of 1968, he worked at a free clinic in the Haight-Ashbury part of San Francisco, where he met Barbara Hirsch. They married in 1970, a few months after he finished at Harvard.

On the advice of a supervisor at the Haight-Ashbury clinic, Dr. Mitchell became a physician, graduating from the Boston University School of Medicine, though he changed his focus from psychiatry to pediatrics. He also received a master’s from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Inspired by the desire to do good and to see the world, he and his wife lived at various points in Tanzania, New Guinea, Indonesia, and Mexico as he worked in public health.

Eleven years into their marriage, they settled in Weston and had two children — Beth, who now lives in Oakland, and Jason who lives in Los Angeles. After 32 years in Weston, Dr. Mitchell and his wife decided to live closer to their children and relocated to Berkeley, Calif., where he was affiliated with the University of California Berkeley.

“He adored his family. He loved his children and was so proud of both Jason and Beth and their accomplishments,” said Barbara, an attorney who formerly worked at Greater Boston Legal Services for more than 20 years and had been executive director of Community Legal Services and Counseling Center in Cambridge, which is now called De Novo.

Dr. Mitchell “made it so clear through all of his words and actions how much he cared about his family,” Beth said. “I grew up so confident in being surrounded by that feeling of being loved and valued and respected.”

Although Dr. Mitchell helped imagine and create the field of digital health, and “was very much a visionary, pushing the boundaries of what was possible,” he also was a mentor who instilled confidence in those who worked for D-tree, Layer said.

“He had a really unusual combination of caring about people, caring about his organization that he created, and caring about practical ideas that would make a difference in people’s lives,” Reich said. “And he did make a difference in people’s lives.”

A service will be announced for Dr. Mitchell, who in addition to his wife and two children leaves a grandson.

“He was so excited when Beth’s son, Arlo, was born,” Barbara said.

Dr. Mitchell “had restarted trying to play the banjo,” she added. “Our grandson, Arlo, would just bounce whenever he heard the music. It just made Marc so happy.”

The couple shared a love of the outdoors, of hiking and skiing — they already had their season passes for next winter’s trips to the slopes.

They also both wanted to see the world, and did — much of it for his work, and also to learn about other cultures. “What we enjoyed the most when we traveled was meeting local people,” Barbara said.

And while he was there — wherever there might be — there were always people to help.

“Perhaps the many Harvard lectures imploring me to ‘do something important’ have finally caught up with me,” he wrote a few years before founding D-tree, adding that “I now find myself trying to achieve something of value.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.