By: Hildigunnur Engilbertsdottir
Global health and humanitarian relief is not something that readily enters my mind when I think of cellphones. That was at least the case before I decided to write this blog post. What many people find surprising is that mobile penetration is extremely high in Sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, Africa has the fastest growing mobile phone market worldwide. In many African countries, individuals have greater access to mobile technology than to paved roads, electricity or the Internet.
I experienced this first hand when I was in Kenya and Sierra Leone in 2008. Even though mobile phone usage has grown considerably since then, the high number of individuals who owned and used cellphones was astounding. I would meet people who didn’t have running water or electricity, but were texting with their extended family in a rural area far away from the capital. Somehow, the mobile phone industry has managed where basic infrastructure has failed.
The World Health Organization published a report this year called mHealth: New horizons for health through mobile technologies. mHealth, according to WHO, is “the use of mobile and wireless technologies to support the achievement of health objectives”. In the report, the results of a survey of member countries display the extent of mobile communications in the achievement of health objectives. Approximately 83% of the countries surveyed use mobile phone technology for various health services, e.g. free emergency calls, text messaging with health information and transmission of tests and lab results. Of the mHealth initiatives that were least frequently reported were e.g. surveillance and awareness raising. Hopefully there will be a drastic increase in these underused initiatives in for example the fight against rising NCD’s.
An interesting mHealth case study is the Mobile Doctors Network (MDNet) that was launched by the Ghana Medical Association in Ghana in 2008, with support from New York University and in collaboration with a mobile telephone provider in Ghana and a US non-profit called Switchboard. With two thousand physicians serving the entire population of Ghana (24 million), MDNet provides a reliable communication system for conducting consultations and referring patients by offering free mobile-to-mobile voice and text services to all the doctors in Ghana. According to a 2009 survey of MDNet, the program has improved considerably communication about patient management among doctors in Ghana. The physicians surveyed report that they are more often reaching out to more experienced doctors for advice on complex medical cases, increasing the flow of information among colleagues.
Implementing mHealth in developing countries is a relatively low-cost procedure with many benefits. Although the health benefits of cellphone usage in the developed world is being debated, the exponential growth of mobile communications in Sub-Saharan Africa could prove to a positive trend in the health arena. This mobile technology can increase the quality of health care services and reduce transport costs for poor people because doctors can now reach them via cellphone. Furthermore, seeing as doctors are in extremely short supply in Africa, physicians with cellphones can give health workers all the information they need to run successful community health clinics. However, the mobile health environment remains unregulated in Africa and the issue of confidentiality needs to be addressed. Key stakeholders in mobile health need to adopt rules and regulation in their approach to this new health technology and the impact of mHealth needs to be more thoroughly evaluated.
1) The Guardian: Mobile health offers hope to patients in Africa http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2011/jun/08/mobile-phone-healthcare-africa
2) The New York Times: In Rural Africa, a Fertile Market for Mobile Phones http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/06/science/06uganda.html
3) mHealth: New horizons for health through mobile technologies http://www.who.int/goe/publications/goe_mhealth_web.pdf