Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Seizing the Mobile Health Opportunity

by Isobel Coleman
May 3, 2011

A baby from Kayapo tribe receives medical attention during the third day of a medical expedition of the "Expedicionarios da Saude" in Sao Felix, Brazil, April 23, 2011 (Ricardo Moraes/Courtesy Reuters).

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today unveiled an interesting new public-private partnership called the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA). Over the next three years, this alliance, which includes the State Department, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, USAID, and Johnson & Johnson, will use mobile phones to improve the health of women and newborns in Bangladesh, India, and South Africa by providing women with access to important and timely health information, customized to their stage of pregnancy or the age of their baby. Women will be able to use their phones to register their due date or baby’s birth date and receive SMS messages or voice recordings that are linked to their stage of pregnancy or baby’s growth. For example, expecting mothers could receive information on locally accessible foods that provide critical nutrition during pregnancy, or reminders about vaccinations their children will need as they develop. This information can empower women living in isolated, rural settings to improve their own health and the health of their families.

MAMA—and m-health (mobile-based health solutions) more generally—is another example of how cell phones are being used for a wide range of development purposes. As I mentioned in an earlier post about mobile banking, ninety percent of the world’s population now has access to a mobile network. They are using this access not only to stay connected with family members and friends, but also to manage their money, access important health and business information, and lead more productive lives.

M-health has great potential that is only beginning to be tapped around the world. In Pakistan, Mobilink and the Ministry of Health launched a program in 2008 to provide Lady Health Workers in rural areas with low-cost mobile phones to increase efficiency and patient access. This has enhanced communication between LHWs, their supervisors, patients, hospitals, and ambulances, improving the quality of maternal and infant health care services in rural areas throughout Pakistan.

In 2009, TulaSalud, in partnership with Guatemala’s Ministry of Health, the Tula Foundation, and the Coban School of Nursing, launched an m-health program to reduce maternal and infant mortality within rural indigenous communities of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. The program provided sixty community health workers (or tele-facilitadores) with mobile phones, allowing them to collect and aggregate patient health information, communicate with health professionals in metropolitan hospitals, organize logistics and transportation for emergencies, and deliver remote health trainings via mobile phone-based audio conferencing. This program has been especially effective for providing care for high-risk pregnancies. Doctors can use health information collected by tele-facilitadores to identify high-risk pregnancies; tell tele-facilitadores how and when to monitor these women; and, in the case of a hospital referral, send health information to the hospital in advance of the patient’s arrival, improving the hospital staff’s preparedness and efficiency.

In Ghana, the Mobile Technology for Community Health initiative (MoTeCH) has significantly improved the delivery of maternal and child health services. Its “Mobile Midwife” application enables pregnant women and their families to receive SMS or voice messages, providing time-specific information about their pregnancy each week in their own language. It sends reminders for care, educational information about child development, and even tips on how to save money for transportation to deliver at a health facility. MoTeCH also provides services for community health workers. The initiative equips rural health facilities with low-cost mobile phones on which nurses record and track care delivered to women and newborns in their area, and has streamlined the process of follow-up care.

These programs demonstrate some of the ways mobile technology is being applied in new areas for transformative change. As the mHealth Alliance explains, “Mobiles can reach the unreached. They can empower the public with information, enable remote health workers, and reduce inefficiencies.” As mobile phone ownership continues to grow, so will the opportunities that mobile technology provides for development.

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