Eric Clayton

“Can You Heal Me Now? Good”: Mobile technology innovations in health care

Between 2000 and 2012, mobile subscriptions skyrocketed from less than 1 billion to well over 6 billion. Nearly 75 percent of the world’s population was using mobile phones in 2012—the vast majority in the developing world.

And more than 30 billion mobile applications were downloaded in 2011. This spread of technology is being driven by the fact that mobile phones are becoming increasingly accessible and affordable. Mobile technology has the power to break through cycles of poverty because it literally puts opportunities—for self-empowerment, greater access to resources, and the ability to innovate—into the hands of local community members.

Nowhere is the potential for innovation more exciting than health care in emerging global markets.

Development on Speed Dial

The field of mobile health, termed mHealth, has expanded to include any mobile technology that addresses obstacles to health care, such as access, quality and affordability, through an open exchange of information.

Collection and dissemination of information powers mHealth solutions. Services can be provided quickly and cheaply, allowing individuals to actively engage in monitoring and preventing health problems. MHealth solutions can both find and store information so that symptoms can be evaluated against a global pool of knowledge.

Health innovation aside, all mHealth solutions have one essential element in common: grassroots empowerment. They decentralize medical care, putting medical knowledge in the hands of consumers, whether they are reducing the distance between a doctor and patient, or allowing self-diagnosis. This gives the patient, rather than the doctor, a vast amount of personal and communal responsibility.

Communities in the developing world have much to gain from this move toward decentralization. Mobile technology gives community leaders the tools to change their own lives directly, no matter who they are or where they are. And mHealth solutions lean towards forward thinking, emphasizing proactive, preventive measures rather than retroactive ones.

Empowering Community Leaders

Josh Nesbit, one of Medic Mobile’s cofounders, came across the potential for innovations driven by mobile technology innovation while researching children’s access to HIV/AIDS medicine in rural Malawi. Public health services faced impossibly high demands as a result of the distance, isolation, and a lack of communications infrastructure between medical facilities and remote communities.

As a result, villagers rarely saw medical professionals and volunteer health workers faced insurmountable obstacles to providing any medical care for their communities. Nesbit noticed two important factors: men and women in these local communities committed to bringing health care to their neighbors, and mobile phones were everywhere.

From these simple realizations, an mHealth solution was born. Using SMS and open source technology, Medic Mobile connects and coordinates health systems, allowing local community health workers (CHWs) to collaborate with distant medical facilities without having to travel long distances.

To deliver this “just-in-time” healthcare, CHWs must share and receive medical and logistical information about topics such as upcoming vaccinations, medication questions, or unforeseen emergencies. The widespread availability of mobile phones and the pervasive use of text messaging makes it easy to scale-up this solution at the grassroots level.

The simplicity of these solutions, and a sense of local ownership, allows individuals from all walks of life to take personal responsibility for their own health, and the health of their community.

The Power to Save

Some 7,000 women in Kenya die each year from pregnancy-related complications because they lack access to medical care and coverage, a statistic that is echoed throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Despite these staggering numbers, health services are often out of reach for lower-income communities. They also tend to forego health insurance because of the cost and, because they don’t fully appreciate its value.

The Smart Card by Changamka MicroHealth, a medical insurance provider that strives to provide affordable, quality health care in Africa, aims to change all of that. Mobile money transfer technology allows women to save small amounts of their own money during the course of their pregnancy, allowing the card’s bearer to receive treatment at pre-contracted prices.

“When pregnant women visit the hospital to give birth, the hospital fees are taken out of their smart cards,” says Samuel Agutu, Changamka’s managing director. “This way, families aren’t hit with a big fee all at once. The use of Changamka would boost the usage of quality ante-natal and maternity facilities among low-income women in Kenya.”

This innovative approach to health care delivers more thorough and higher-quality treatments. More than this, it empowers low-income communities to save money for their future, and to better budget their medical costs. Families avoid devastating financial surprises and feel more confident that they will get the health care they need.

Knowledge is Power

A key benefit provided by mHealth solutions is the potential to scale-up by leveraging ubiquitous mobile technology. The global distribution of mobile phone technology means that solutions developed in a country like Spain can readily be applied in a country like Ecuador, with a little work and technical know-how.

For example, Heartik, a Spanish organization, has developed Arrythmyk, an early-stage mobile solution that addresses arrhythmia, a heart disease that is both common and difficult to control. Because arrhythmias can occur at any time—and often happen when patients are away from hospitals and doctors—they are difficult to monitor.

Arrythmyk hopes to change that. Patients can use the camera in their mobile phone to assess their risk of arrhythmia, gather data, and forward the information to their doctor for review by downloading a mobile app that works on Android, IOS, and Windows 8. This solution saves time and money, and reduces the need to travel to a medical office—all issues that people in the developing world often face.

Addressing these kinds of issues is often at the core of mHealth solutions. By putting more power in the hands of patients, mHealth innovations allow them to make better-informed decisions and to exercise more influence over their own health care, and that of their communities.

Editor’s note: For more solutions from health care social entrepreneurs around the world, check out Transforming Health Systems: Gamechanging Business Models, a new online competition launched by Ashoka Changemakers in partnership with Boehringer Ingelheim.

Health Care, Technology
public health