News / Africa

Using Technology to Improve Healthcare

The 4th mHealth Summit brings over 4,000 participants from 50 countries to Washington, D.C. area.
The 4th mHealth Summit brings over 4,000 participants from 50 countries to Washington, D.C. area.

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Joe DeCapua
This week (12/3-5), over 4,000 people from 50 countries have gathered near Washington, D.C. to discuss how mobile technology is affecting healthcare. Organizers of the mHealth Summit say some of the biggest advances and initiatives are taking place in low and middle income countries.


The 4th annual mHealth Summit brings together experts from the private sector, NGOs, governments and the technology industry. Organizers call it the mHealth ecosystem.

Patricia Mechael is executive director of the mHealth Alliance, which aims to mainstream the use of mobile technologies to address critical health issues.

“In the world, there are six billion mobile phone subscriptions in a population of seven billion people. And the most rapidly growing markets are those in developing countries. Africa, as a continent, you have widespread adoption where three or four years ago the penetration rates were 20 percent or 30 percent and now they’re getting upwards of 60 percent in some countries,” she said.

A lot of work is being done to use mobile technologies for maternal and child health.

“Earlier work had been to look at mobile technologies and HIV and AIDS. And so we have some great evidence on the use of mobile for things like treatment adherence and compliance and care management. And increasingly, it’s being used to address everything from malaria to tuberculosis to just general strengthening of the health system,” she said.

Also attending the mHealth Summit is Kirsten Gagnaire, global director of the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, also known as MAMA. It’s a public/private partnership launched by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011. It Includes USAID, Johnson & Johnson Company, the United Nations Foundation and the mHealth Alliance.

“There’s about 800 women a day globally, and about three million babies every year that die from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes. And most of those deaths are preventable, and most of those deaths occur in the developing world. And the kinds of reasons these deaths occur are from not having basic information again about how to care for themselves when women need to seek care, and how to give care to their infants,” said Gagnaire.

She said MAMA sends messages to mobile phones to educate women about their health.

“We have a set of messages that cover pregnancy and the first year of a baby’s life. And these messages are overseen by a very high level global health medical advisory board. And then we have guidelines to help countries take these basic sets of messages and really localize them for their local context,” she said.

Patricia Mechael of the mHealth Alliance said those messages can be text or voicemail.

“For example, you can have a pregnant woman in Bangladesh registered into a system that provides messages that are timed to her pregnancy that can help her know what to do, when to do certain things. And then when to go in for specific treatment issues, or prevention care like immunizations and that sort of thing,” she said.

She added, however, the mHealth field can be fragmented in providing services.

“One of the areas that we’re really advocating for [is] the development of national strategies and policies, standards, that can help bring some sense and sensibility to all of the work that’s happening on the ground. And so just really encouraging, whether it’s policymakers or donors, to really think systematically about how their investments are going to fit in with everything that is happening in this space,” she said.

Gagnaire, of the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Health, said internet access in developed countries can be taken for granted.

“A lot of people in the developed world believe that everyone has access to the Internet. But if you think about what it means to have access to the Internet – you’ve got to be able to do a search – you have to be able to read through thousands of entries that come back to you on Google, for example, and then figure out what that information means to you. And that’s not something that someone in a poor, illiterate or semi-literate kind of situation can do,” she said.

She said health messages may not only be sent to the pregnant woman, for example, but to her husband and mother-in-law so they too understand what needs to be done.

Organizers of the mHealth Summit said one of the major challenges is integrating an “overwhelming stream of continuous information” into health systems and patient care.

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