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Mobile Health Technology Can Reach the Remotest Corners

A woman learns to use a mobile phone-based vaccination registry.
A woman learns to use a mobile phone-based vaccination registry.

Consider this: a mobile phone with applications to detect cancer and tuberculosis, control sugar levels for diabetics and monitor vital signs. The champions of mobile health or "mhealth" technology are promising healthcare delivered through digital devices. The technology is already being used - in different degress - in many countrties. It's poised to improve access and ensure rapid delivery of health care especially in developing nations.

In India's Silicon Valley , Bangalore, a hospital provides cell phones to health workers. They use the applications in remote communities, sending patient data back to the hospital for a diagnosis.

The technology was developed with Harvard University to help find cancer in early stages when it's still treatable.

Dr. Moni Abraham heads the Department of Cancer at Narayan Hriduyalya hospital. He explains how it works. "So almost like an expert going to the community and seeing the patient ourselves, so they (health workers) take a picture then completing all the constituents and taking picture they press a button and with the button they can transfer the entire details into the Internet," he said.

mHealth Alliance, a global consortium, and other promoters of mobile health technology see cell phones and other devices as a way to improve health care in areas where people do not have good access to it. It can facilitate health care in developing countries.

But in affluent countries, the technology promises rapid health care too - especially in rural communities.

It can help health care workers communicate with clinics. Doctors and technicians in the field can get advice on how best to treat a patient.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has doled out billions of dollars to improve health care in developing countries. Bill Gates says cell phones and lap tops can save lives. "If you could register every birth on the cell phone, get fingerprints, get a location then you could take these systems where you go around and make sure those immunizations happened," he said.

In most developing countries, medical records are recorded by hand.

Researchers funded by the Gates Foundation are working on a mobile phone-based vaccination registry. Health workers will scan fingerprints into a mobile phone so they can track people who have been immunized against certain diseases.

The Intel Corporation has developed a mapping tool.

An Intel spokesman explains how that could facilitate the work of health professionals. "Today they go around with a clipboard and a paper but whereas now they will be able to take care of location where the folks are, what treatments they have had," he said.

Experts say mobile technology can provide a mosaic of services. The applications can be used to quickly relay medical data, transfer money and send educational materials to whoever needs them.

Thierry Zylberberg with the mobile company Orange says the applications will depend on the health needs of specific countries. "In Europe, we are very advanced in the sense that we have commercially available systems we are making money out of it," he said.

Linking technology to health priorities could be the next step in making mobile health relevant.