Ariel Gruver

Mobile Health Targets Women: Yet many don’t have mobile phones

The use of mobile technology in recent years has revolutionized the way we deliver health care globally. With nearly 6 billion cell phone subscribers, tools like mobile apps, remote monitoring, text messaging and portable sensors can provide a plethora of health care resources – even to the most remote regions of the world.

But most women don’t have mobile phones.

Every day 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth – most of all in developing countries. Medical care is severely limited, especially in rural areas, and the large number of adolescent girls giving birth creates an even higher risk of complications during pregnancy.

Health organizations now see a striking opportunity for mobile technology to offer urgent maternal care to women across the globe – if they can get cell phones into the hands of more women. For households living on less than $2 per day, even a basic $20 mobile phone can be well out of reach. And when families can afford only one phone, it most often goes to the husband rather than the wife.

Speakers at this year’s Clinton Global Initiative expressed concern over the gender gap in access to mobile technology. A woman in Africa or the Middle East is 23 percent less likely than a man to have access to mobile technology, and in South Asia the gap widens to 37 percent, according to Groupe Spéciale Mobile Association. More than 300 million women could have access to mobile phones but don’t due to cost, cultural attitude, fear of technology, literacy and lack of electricity.

“Increasing women’s use of mobile technology can have a broader impact on the economy as a whole by opening access to information, resources for banking and basic services like health care,” says women’s advocate Cherie Blair, speaking at the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative. “For women living on less than $2 per day, mobile phones can provide essential access to tools that improve the success of their businesses, their lives and the lives of their families.”

Health initiatives give mobile phone users access to vital information, skilled birth attendants and urgent care information with the click of a button. If women can tap into these resources from even the poorest corners of the world, many lives may be saved.

Mwana, a large-scale health program offered throughout Zambia and Mali, provides a quick way to deliver HIV screening results. Babies that are born to HIV positive mothers have a one-in-four chance of contracting the virus that causes AIDS. However, it can take weeks to get test results, wasting critical time that could be spent battling the virus. By training health workers to send the results via mobile phone, Mwana has successfully cut the waiting time by more than half for anxious families and caregivers, giving them an earlier opportunity to provide proper medical care.

Not all projects have been as successful as Mwana. New York Times columnist Tina Rosenberg points out that despite the surge in mobile health programs, most are too complicated to operate on a large scale, and don’t offer the simplicity or incentive for new users to adopt. Though research takes time, Rosenberg notes that the pace is picking up and might inspire ways to make mobile health programs more effective in the long run.

As maternal health information spreads across the developing world through mobile phones, health organizations must identify real-world solutions to break down the barriers to mobile access for women. Mobile operators share an equal stake in this task – closing this gender gap could unlock a $13 billion market, after all. Mobile operators can use market research to design mobile phones and content that appeals to women globally. And flexible payment plans designed specifically to accommodate women’s needs would improve access for many by reducing the upfront costs. Through the use of advertising, mobile operators can shift cultural attitudes toward women’s need for mobile technology by promoting multi-phone households.

Mobile technology has brought the world’s population within reach of vital information and resources to improve daily life. Yet with the recent wave of mobile health initiatives, it’s critical now more than ever to ensure that women have equal access to these services to reap the benefits. Doing so would not only promise a larger market to mobile providers, but it would also give health organizations the opportunity to impact the lives of women and families worldwide by putting a lifesaving technology at their fingertips – all in the form of a simple, handheld device.

Ariel Gruver is a Global Envision intern in Portland. She’s a senior at Portland State University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in economics with a minor in mathematics and statistics.

Health Care, Technology
public health