Are there more mobile phones than toilets in some places? Yes, in some developing countries, that’s true. This was one of the take-aways from the mHealth Summit that took place last week in Washington, DC, where over 3,800 people gathered to hear about the fast-growing health-related mobile phone industry. The Summit featured for the first time this year a Global Health Track that focused solely on mobile health interventions and lessons learned from developing countries– lack of access to care, providers without the necessary knowledge or information to do their job properly, and stockouts of supplies and medicines.
Patty Mechael, Executive Director of the mHealth Alliance, said in her introductory remarks on the first day of the conference that “more people in developing countries have access to mobile phones than clean water or bank accounts,” things we take for granted. What a possible game changer for health in developing countries if mobile phones can be used to leverage access to health care.
The number of doctors in Africa is woefully low, and there exists a game-changing opportunity to use mobile phones with front line health workers to improve patient care. According Sandya Rao, Senior Advisor of Private Sector Partnerships in the Office of Health, Infectious Diseases and Nutrition at USAID, working with frontline health workers is the “most immediate and cost-effective way to save lives and improve health”, quoting the Frontline Health Workers Coalition. The challenges of frontline health workers include inadequate training, inadequate performance incentives and weak health systems. Many different approaches to using mobile phones with health workers exist and are working. The successful ones have benefited from stakeholder inclusion in design and taking a holistic systems approach. According to Alain Labrique, Director of the Johns Hopkins University Global mHealth Initiative, countries can “recognize the individual, support disconnected frontline health workers, engage the community, and make the invisible visible.”