News / Africa

Mobile, Wireless Devices Save Lives, Money

WHO survey finds opportunities and barriers for mHealth

Mobile coverage is rapidly increasing in the developing world with 64 percent of the global market including rural areas.
Mobile coverage is rapidly increasing in the developing world with 64 percent of the global market including rural areas.

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Rosanne Skirble

World Health officials have released the most comprehensive global survey to date of how mobile phones and other wireless communication technologies are improving health care delivery around the world.

The World Health Organization survey notes that there are more than five billion mobile phone subscribers in the world today. That means more than eight out of 10 people around the world make use of the mobile devices.

That's more people than have access to paved roads, electricity or the Internet, says Misha Kay, head of the World Health Organization’s Global Observatory for eHealth, which produced the report. Mobile technology, Kay says, is about more than just wireless phone calls.

An estimated 2.2 billion mobile phone users - 64 percent of the market - are based in the developing world. In Uganda, more than a third of the population, about 10 million people, own a cell phone, according to WHO.
An estimated 2.2 billion mobile phone users - 64 percent of the market - are based in the developing world. In Uganda, more than a third of the population, about 10 million people, own a cell phone, according to WHO.

“And yes it can be used for health and it is starting to be used for health even in developing countries and our role is to make sure that we can communicate the message as to how it’s best used and how not to abuse it and where it could go in the future.”

Using mobile phone service for health care

The state and future of what’s known simply as “mHealth” is the focus of the Mobile Health Summit in Cape Town, South Africa, attended by leaders from the mobile phone and health care industries and representatives of public health and non-profit groups. The WHO report was released at the meeting.

It notes that 83 percent of the 112 countries responding to the WHO survey report using mobile phone service for health care.

“That in fact surprised us because we didn’t think that it would be so advanced," says Kay. "And within that 83 percent, we found that 70 percent of those countries were already running mHealth programs of between one and ten programs and 30 percent had 10-plus programs.”

Among the 14 different types of mHealth activities cited, the most widely used were health call centers, emergency toll-free services and emergency- and disaster-response management. Kay says most other types of mHealth programs are in the pilot or informal stage.

He says their growth - spurred by rapid technological advances and the declining costs of wireless telecommunications - is taking place independent of government and national or international aid agencies.

Nursing students learn about the importance of technology at a hospital in a rural part of Tanzania.
Nursing students learn about the importance of technology at a hospital in a rural part of Tanzania.

“So the thought is, if we were to actively start funding projects in the developing world, we could go into a fairly strong exponential curve.”

Saving lives

Advocates say mHealth initiatives are saving lives. Mobile technology is extending the reach of rural health care services, improving the quality of care and reducing costs.  

The WHO report highlights the mobile connections between doctors and patients in Ghana, the wireless collection of maternal health data in Senegal and the use instant text messaging to monitor disease outbreaks in Cambodia.

But the technology is far from fully utilized. Kay says it was no surprise that half of the countries surveyed reported competing government priorities and a lack of technical knowledge about possible applications have limited their ability to set national policies that recognize and promote mHealth.  

“We all need to see the results are positive and proven as positive," Kay says. "And at that point I think that we would see that governments will be far more likely to invest in these kinds of projects, particularly if they also can be shown that this approach is actually cost effective because, of course, the dollar is driving mHealth service and is the bottom line.”

mHealth tool-kit

The WHO is expanding its database of best mHealth practices and creating a practical how-to mHealth tool-kit. The information package is designed to help policy makers and partners in health care and mobile services develop new strategies for extending mHealth services wherever they can go.  

“First of all getting countries to actually look at what their own health system priorities are," says Kay. "And then looking at how electronic health or eHealth can be integrated into the health system to provide support to existing services or future services within the health system.”

The WHO mHealth tool kit is expected to be released later this year. The survey is available on the WHO website

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