The rapidly growing number of people using mobile phones since the late 1990s and the numerous constraints felt by healthcare systems in developing countries have greatly contributed to the development of mobile health.
Mobile health or just mHealth is basically the practice of medicine and public health, supported by mobiles devices.
Faced with the challenge to effectively deliver healthcare to large populations with a high disease burden and prohibitively limited resources for functioning healthcare infrastructure and health information systems, healthcare professionals are now looking to mobile technology.
Challenges in health systems are no longer knowledge gaps in clinical conditions, human behaviour and environmental factors that have a bearing on human health. These have already been understood, thanks to technological advances and ages of research that span these domains.
The real challenge is to loop in real time feedback mechanisms to sanction timely decision-making and intervention. And that is where mHealth comes in. The recent proliferation of wireless and mobile technologies presents the opportunity to connect information in the real-world to generate continuous streams of data on factors that influence health.
This data has the potential to yield new insights into how these factors can be manipulated. It can also be analysed and used to prompt changes in behaviours or environmental exposures to optimise health outcomes.
Mobile devices such as cell-phones can be used to collect community and medical data, real-time monitoring of patient’s vital signs, direct delivery of care, provision of health information to practitioners, patients as well as researchers.
Society has already started seeing the fruits of mHealth and Malawi is no exception.
Patients with different clinical conditions have been reminded of medical appointments and treatment adherence. Clinical test results have been instantly moved from laboratories to bio-sample sources or physicians, data has been transferred in real time between generators and researchers, and the list could go on.
A simple example could be where a clinician sends a simple text message to a community volunteer to remind a patient in their village who is on anti-retroviral therapy to return to the health facility for drug refill.
Although there is still little evidence-based research into the effectiveness and efficiency of mHealth interventions, the growing body of publications strongly suggests that mHealth has the potential to provide those living in marginalised areas with an unprecedented level of access to health resources.
But let us keep the euphoria in check, at least for now. For societies to exploit the full potential of mHealth programming there is need to enhance local ownership of mHealth programs, encourage collaborative approaches, bridge knowledge gaps in integration of mobile technology into health systems, invest in rigorous cost-benefit analyses and research on actual mHealth outcomes, and sharing of experiences for adoption of best practices.
Mobile network operators are at the heart of all mHealth interventions. Governments and their partners as well as all those charged with the responsibility of providing healthcare have to support mHealth implementers in developing strong and mutually benefiting partnerships with mobile network operators so that meaningful and sustainable contracts are entered into.
Most importantly, mobile network operators have to be shown the full business benefits from collaborating in mHealth programmes as in the process they will need far more than just the pride of being part of a noble cause in saving lives. The business benefits to mobile network operators are numerous.
By partnering in mHealth programmes, they are assured of expanding their customer base. Most mHealth programmes are also highly likely to keep existing customers alive for extended periods of time. These two combined will translate into an overall increase in communication traffic and thereby directly benefiting the mobile network operators.