The majority of us own a mobile phone. Mobile phones are part of everyday life. We rely on them to stay in touch with people, check the news and update our facebook status.
Now what about healthcare provision? My local hospital is just 9 miles from the village I live in, but imagine those who have to travel over 100km to visit a doctor; women in prolonged labour who have to take a day’s journey on a bus to receive the pre and postnatal care they need to give birth safely. In developing countries local healthcare provision is an issue, but healthcare professionals are looking to mobile technology to address this problem.
64% of mobile phones are being used in the developing world. With this exposure but lack of widespread access to healthcare, mobile phone usage is transforming the way those in developing countries are accessing healthcare information. Not to mention the increasing information healthcare professionals and NGOs can gather about communities which before would have been impossible to gather without regular and costly visits to clinics. This thinking helped found the mHealth movement.
Photo courtesy of IRINnews.org
What is mHealth?
mHealth is a term used for the practice of medicine and public health, supported by mobile devices. mHealth applications include the use of mobile devices in collecting community and clinical health data, delivery of healthcare information to practitioners, researchers, and patients, real-time monitoring of patient vital signs, and direct provision of care (via mobile telemedicine).
mHealth has found the most success in developing countries due to the rapid rise of mobile phone users in low-income countries. A recent IRIN article states that the ‘mobile phone seems to have morphed from communications device to essential life-saver.’
Infographic courtesy of gsma.com
The advantages of mHealth are numerous. Particularly for hard-to-reach populations, mHealth offers the beneficiaries greater access to healthcare and health-related information, disease tracking and the ability to diagnose, more actionable public health information and greater access to ongoing medical education and training for health workers.
The development of the mHealth field has arisen from two factors. The first factor concerns the constraints felt by healthcare systems of developing countries. Such constraints include high population growth, a high burden of disease prevalence, large rural communities and limited financial resources for both healthcare infrastructure and health information systems. The second factor is the significant rise in mobile phone usage in developing countries to large numbers of the healthcare workforce as well as the general population.
Benefits of mHealth
While others exist, the UN Foundation and Vodafone Foundation report presents seven application categories within the mHealth field.
• Education and awareness
• Diagnostic and treatment support
• Communication and training for healthcare workers
• Disease and epidemic outbreak tracking
• Remote monitoring
• Remote data collection
Other benefits include the cost implication in both reducing the need for the erection of health clinics and also of travel costs for both patients and healthcare workers. In addition, where women have less mobility due to cultural constraints, access to a mobile phone provides them with links to a support network.
Mrs Clinton said that closing the technology gender gap was crucial to empowering women. Mobile phones are used to access health care, report violence and coordinate disaster relief and aid efforts in often volatile countries.
‘Over nine out of 10 women [they] surveyed felt safer because of their mobile phone, and 85 per cent said they felt more independent [through the use of a mobile phone].’
Flaws with mHealth
· Methodological problems – accuracy in findings (results largely collected in high-income countries)
· Network connectivity
· Systems integration
· Duplication of efforts – mHealth projects not run in line with national health policies.
· Need for full integration with national health programmes.
mHealth in action
In December 2012 Text to change (TTC), in collaboration with the mHealth partnership launched a nationwide SMS campaign in Tanzania focusing their attention on pregnant women. The campaign, Wazazi Nipendeni (meaning Love me, parents in Swahili) aims to empower pregnant women and their partners with handy tips to ensure a healthy pregnancy and safe delivery. This SMS platform enables pregnant women, birth supporters and others interested in safe motherhood to receive information and reminders about healthy pregnancy. The target participants can send the word ‘mtoto’ (‘child’ in Swahili) to a particular number, which is free of charge on all mobile networks. After registering, users receive a text message covering a comprehensive range of safe pregnancy and early child care information.
Photo courtesy of mHealthinfo.org
The TTC campaign combines a number of key safe motherhood health topics, including early and complete antenatal clinic attendance, malaria prevention, individual birth planning, and prevention of mother to child transmission of HID/AIDS. Since its launch in November 2012, more than 4 million text messages have to sent to those who have signed up for the free healthy pregnancy and safe motherhood information.
However, a recent report from Save the Children found that ‘while many countries have achieved some success in increasing the number of mothers who give birth in health care facilities, many poor women in rural areas still give birth at home, without any contact with the health system.’ This supports the need for further innovation in reaching out to rural communities who are left without access to healthcare and that ‘the use of mHealth…should be allowed to be driven by the communities who [can] benefit from it.’
LIFESAVER and mHealth
LIFESAVER technology can support mHealth by providing families and communities with remote access to clean sterile water without the need for regular support from healthcare practitioners. In addition, time spent travelling to clinics or money spent on medicine is reduced. This empowers hard-to-reach populations and also reduces costs for practitioners.
 Saran, Cliff, 2009. How mobile phones support healthcare in the developing world. Computer Weekly [online] March 2009. Available at: <http://www.computerweekly.com/feature/How-mobile-phones-support-healthcare-in-the-developing-world> [Accessed 8 May 2013]
 -, 2013. Analysis: Sending the right message on mHealth. IRIN News [online] 8 May 2013. Available at: <http://www.irinnews.org/Report/98001/Analysis-Sending-the-right-message-on-mHealth> [Accessed 9 May 2013]
 Beaumont, Claudine, 2010. Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair launch mobile phone scheme for women in developing countries. Telegraph, [online] 8 October 2010. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/mobile-phones/8050545/Hillary-Clinton-and-Cherie-Blair-launch-mobile-phone-scheme-for-women-in-developing-nations.html [Accessed 8 May 2013]
 Beaumont, Claudine, 2010.
 Save the Children, 2013. State of the World’s Mothers 2013 [pdf] Available at: <http://www.savethechildrenweb.org/SOWM-2013/> [Accessed 14 May 2013], p. 19.
 -, 2013. Analysis: Sending the right message on mHealth.