Mobile technology is transforming public health and medicine in the developing world, raising hopes but also concerns for the future.
In a new report, the World Health Organization finds that 83 percent out of 122 countries use mobile technology for health services — offering patients, for example, free emergency helplines and text message health reminders and test results, plus linking health practitioners in far-flung locales using telemedicine and smartphone apps.
And such mobile health efforts are critical: In Africa in particular, mobile penetration exceeds infrastructure development, such as paved roads and electricity. So connecting with health practitioners via mobile technology is often the only way people can get any care.
“The momentum is huge. What is happening is important,” said Misha Kay, manager of the WHO’s Global Observatory for eHealth, speaking at Africa’s first mobile health summit earlier this week. “Millions of people in Africa still do not have access to any health care. With mobile technology they can at least have some.”
But in Africa, as well as in many other developing parts of the world, the mobile health environment is unregulated and uncoordinated, raising concerns that commercial interests may trump public needs. For example, mobile carriers may be overcharging for some services, minimizing or inhibiting the public health benefits to the poor. And pharmaceutical companies may be able to “buy” medical professionals by giving them mobile phones or other gifts.
There are further concerns involving issues of confidentiality and security for mobile health patients around the world. Most medical information databases and dissemination are highly regulated in industrialized nations, but these regulations are not in place in some developing countries.
Participants at the African health summit said that governments need to coordinate their efforts and especially develop a stronger regulatory framework in the mobile health realm.
Even in developed countries such as the U.S. there’s a push for greater government oversight of the exploding field of mobile health. The Food and Drug Administration, for one, recently announced plans to issue guidelines on mobile medical apps to address concerns of efficacy and safety as medical apps grow in number and popularity.
With the nonprofit Gates Foundation leading many developments in mobile health — such as a smartphone app to remotely diagnose malaria — there’s certainly great potential for using technology to truly combat health crises and improve public health.
But without greater oversight and public attention, the potential to make greater profit could also lead some companies to think only about their short-term interests.