This week, the 5th Birthday Child Survival Campaign is focusing on a tool of growing importance in the field of public health. In this post, I want to share why mHealth is a very important method for delivering health services and medicines to children and adults alike.
At the end of 2011, there were an estimated 6 billion mobile subscribers, 76% of which are located in the developing world. Meanwhile, the developed world has reached a mobile saturation point, where there is roughly one mobile device per person. Here, the distinction between phones, tablets, and laptops has blurred to the point where each can be best thought of as powerful computing and communication devices, and their ubiquity and utility opens tremendous potential for a number of fields, particularly health.
Mobile health, known as “mHealth,” refers to the practice of medicine or public health that uses mobile communication technology. Although the technology to use handheld computing devices has been available for some time, recent factors – the spread of inexpensive and open-source software, the rapid advance of sophisticated mobile devices, improved telecommunications infrastructure, falling prices – have led to great advancements in mHealth initiatives.
Mobile devices are a “leveling” technology: now that they are accessible even to the poorest populations because of the low price of cell phones, the pay-as-you-go payment structure, and advancements in infrastructure, devices are decreasing the divide between wealthy and poor populations. They are also a “leap-frogging” technology, often found in resource-challenged settings that have few other services, such as reliable electricity, running water, or wired-telephones. The potential for mobile devices to deliver health services to and empower women and children in need of care has been realized in programs such as the internationally-focused Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), and the U.S.-based Text4Baby .
mHealth activities can be seen everywhere in public health, across the public and private sectors and developed and developing countries. Some examples of successful mHealth interventions include:
- Diagnostic technologies, such as EKGs, microscope attachments to camera cell phones, oximeters to measure oxygenation of the blood
- SMS (text messaging) platforms that send reminders and educational messages designed to help smokers quit
- Mobile locator applications that use mapping technology to provide information about the nearest locations providing health services
- Advanced supply chain systemsthat enable health facility workers to easily report information about stockouts of essential medicines
Evidence for the impact of mHealth is mounting. In the last year, findings have been published demonstrating that mHealth interventions improved patient-caretaker interactions, diagnosis, treatment adherence, vaccine uptake, behavior change, and more. As one example, a recent study showed that crowd-sourcing malaria diagnosis to untrained people using mobile gaming platforms approached the accuracy of medical experts and more traditional testing approaches. In this study, a game was created that enabled people from all over the world to access and diagnose images of human red blood cells that are potentially infected with the parasite that causes malaria. The combined accuracy of the gamer diagnosis was 99%, with sensitivity of 95.1% and specificity of 99.4%.
With long-term projections for mobile use showing sustained and incredible growth throughout the world in the coming years, practitioners of public health should expect to see more and more advancements with regards to mHealth. Although still in the early stages, the use of mobile technologies to improve health has left its infancy, and is well on its way to becoming a fixture of public health programs around the globe.