People in developing nations depend on mobile phones to access health services and prevent disease, as mobile technology creates a platform for improving healthcare in remote, underserved areas.
The Future of mHealth is our series that explores opportunities and challenges of mHealth, which aims to put widespread access to healthcare within the reach of those who need it most.
According to the United Nations International Telecommunications Union, nearly 70 percent of people in the developing world have a mobile subscription, and Cisco reports worldwide 48 million people without electricity and landline Internet access have a mobile phone, showing that of mobile use outpaces basic infrastructure in many rural and developing areas.
These numbers represent an opportunity for the mHealth field, because devices can reach people who might otherwise go without care and services, impacting the health of entire populations and furthering public health initiatives in remote, underserved areas.
Halting the Spread of Contagious Disease
In developed countries, mobile health innovations manage and prevent chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.
In developing nations, however, the need is much different. In countries without access to clean water, sanitary conditions and basic preventive care, communicable diseases still run rampant.
Cell phones fight cholera in Haiti, for example. Late last year, community health workers began using specially programmed Nokia cell phones to track information about cholera infections in Haiti’s Central plateau. The disease affects thousands of Haitians in isolated mountain communities, and worsens during the fall rainy season.
Diseases such as cholera are on the rise, as well, since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which created a large homeless, migratory population and eased the disease’s spread.
By tracking and reporting new cholera cases quickly using mobile technology, health workers can isolate the disease to prevent spreading and get treatment to people who need it.
Cholera can kill within 24 hours of infection. Before the mobile program, health workers often walked six or more hours to submit weekly disease reports from outlying areas, losing critical days of response time.
In Kenya, text messages improved recovery rates in malaria treatment programs by 25 percent. Researchers sent SMS reminders to Kenyan health workers’ mobile phones twice a day for six months, focusing on inspiring and informing community workers to help them stick with ongoing malaria treatment efforts.
The program helps the workers remember to administer malaria medications regularly and to keep their spirits up in a tough job, underscoring the potential of mobile devices’ to bring both practical solutions and hope to areas that need it most.
Financing Healthcare in Developing Areas
Mobile banking is on the rise in the developing world, presenting another opportunity for mobile health to grow because it represents a way for poor families to pay for healthcare without carrying large amounts of cash or relying on sparse banking services.
In African nations with limited banking services and computer access, people use cell phones to send money to family and friends, pay bills and track their savings.
Kenya’s M-Pesa system is the world’s largest mobile banking platform, according to a PBS NewsHour report, with more than 13 million active customers. The mobile finance system allows people to store and transfer mobile credits on their phones and withdraw cash from local vendors.
The same technology could soon further mobile health initiatives as well, allowing people to save credits toward future health needs, for example, or distributing mobile payment incentives to villagers who immunize their children.
The Pesinet agency uses cell phones to provide a form of “health insurance” for families in Mali, which has one of the world’s highest child mortality rates.
Under Pesinet’s program, community health workers test children weekly for signs of illness, then enter the data from the weekly checkups into a custom-designed mobile app. Workers send data to an online database, where doctors analyze it and send out alerts to health workers and children’s’ families to arrange treatment if necessary.
Families pay a small monthly fee to enroll in the program, which entitles them to free weekly examinations and covers half the cost of any medications needed.
As mobile devices proliferate worldwide, they create a route to healthcare access in areas where traditional medical services are in short supply, forming a base for communication, treatment and funding to improve public health.