Improving Global Health Through Mobile Technologies

Photo By: NEC Corporation of America (CC)

Information and communications technology (ICT) has begun to infiltrate every aspect of the human experience. It is changing not only the way that we communicate and connect with one another, but how we access and deliver health services.

Mobile health, or “mHealth,” a component of eHealth, utilizes cellular technology and its inherent capabilities such as short messaging service (SMS), Global Positioning System (GPS), general packet radio service (GPRS), 3G and 4G mobile telecommunications systems, and Bluetooth to support medical and public health practices. Due to rapid expansion and advancement in this field, low-income countries are better able to use these capabilities for the improvement and delivery of essential health services.

In 2002, approximately 1 in 10 people owned a cellphone in sub-Saharan Africa; today, mobile phones are as common in South Africa and Nigeria as they are in the United States. Throughout the sub-Saharan region, roughly two-thirds or more say they own a cellphone. The growing presence of cellular technology can have an important impact on health systems in developing countries where heath ICT infrastructure is frequently disjointed. It can eliminate barriers to using eHealth data to improve global health outcomes.

Open-sourced mobile technology software such as EpiSurveyor and Sana are also providing opportunities for sustainable and locally customizable platform development that were once considered out-of-reach for resource-limited countries. EpiSurveyor is being used by health ministries in at least 20 countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa to improve the timeliness and robustness of healthcare data, making it easier to monitor disease trends and promote public health programming. Sana Mobile, a diagnostic and clinical records system that is able to collect, store, and transmit complex medical data, such as audio, video, text, and location-based data, can be downloaded to a mobile device allowing access to important decision support tools even when connectivity is poor or nonexistent.

Other advancements in mHeath, such as mobile apps and smartphone clip-on hardware, are driving innovation in clinical care for resource-limited countries. Just one person with minimal training can use the Peek portable eye examination device to provide a full range of diagnostic tests. Peek is able to diagnose blindness and other visual impairments, check glasses prescription, and examine retinal and optic nerve disease while storing patient-level GPS data for follow-up care.

The rapid development and investment in mobile networks and technology in low- and middle-income countries has revolutionized service delivery and allows for the strategic allocation of resources using data-driven approaches and evidence-based programing across a variety of health programs.

As low-income countries work to transition from paper-based and electronic systems to faster, more modern web- and mobile-based frameworks, the collection and distribution of health data for essential health services such as patient education, medication tracking, health promotion, and clinical diagnostics, promises to bring much-needed help to the healthcare infrastructure of developing nations.