10 November 2010

Africa: Mobile Phones 'Powerful' in Promoting Health, Advocates Say

Photo: Neil Thomas/IRIN
New approaches to health problems are leaning towards mobile phones...

Leaders in the business, development, health and research communities are gathering this week in Washington, DC, to plan how to more effectively deliver healthcare through mobile technology in the developing and developed worlds.

The three-day mHealth Summit: Research, Technology and Policy aims to advance the discussion around ways mobile technology can increase the access, efficiency and effectiveness of health systems.

Mhealth stands for mobile-based or mobile-enhanced health solutions. "It's basically making health wireless," Kathy Calvin, CEO of the United Nations Foundation, told a recent teleconference.

"It's a simple but groundbreaking idea that global wireless networks and mobile devices – whether they be cell phones, smart phones, mobile-enhanced diagnostic devices - can be powerful vehicles for delivering innovative medical and health and services to the farthest reaches of the globe," she said.

Calvin said nearly eight million children around the world die every year, or 22,000 children every day, mainly because they don't have access to basic healthcare. The UN Foundation believes many of these deaths could be prevented through the use of mobile technology. For example, one village could more easily communicate to another about the availability of life-saving vaccines.

"Mobile phone adoption around the world has increased more rapidly than any other technology in history," Calvin said. "The fastest growing cell phone markets, in fact, are in the developing countries where the disease burdens are also the highest. There are five billion subscribers today, almost 70 percent of them in the developing world."

She said the foundation believes that to achieve the health-related UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015 the global health community needs to work with other partners to develop new approaches to health problems.

"Mobile health is the one [approach] we think has the most immediate and far-reaching promise of making a difference," Calvin said. "We believe that through wireless networks we can connect patients, families and practitioners with a speed and breadth never before possible. We have the ability to get the right information into the hands of the people who need it, when and where they need it – messages, reminders, checklists, access to information, calls for emergency help in a difficult birth, are all improved with the use of cell and mobile technology."

She said such technology was already working in places around the globe, from Bangladesh to Tanzania, changing the way the world provides medical treatment and access to health care.

The summit program includes discussions on "improving access to medicines, emergency response and mobile technology," and "global strategy for saving lives through innovation."

The latter is linked to the Global Strategy for Women's and Children's Health, launched in September by the UN secretary-general, to help accelerate progress on MDGs 4 and 5 that deal with women and children's health. A Maternal and Newborn mHealth Initiative has been adopted as a program in the global strategy.

Summit organizers said they were using the opportunity at the summit to hold the first organizing meeting of the maternal mHealth initiative.

"The first item out of the box is trying to get a full global inventory of the eHealth and mHealth projects that are going on in maternal and newborn [health] so we can either not reinvent the wheel or not reinvent flat tires, and both are being reinvented all over the world," David Aylward, executive director of the MHealth Alliance, told the teleconference.

Summit attendees include representatives of governments, non-governmental organizations, development organizations, universities, health advocacy groups and telecommunications companies. Among those companies are Vodafone and Orange, which oversee several mobile phone carriers across English- and French-speaking Africa.

Keynote speakers at the summit include Bill Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Aneesh Chopra, White House chief technology officer; Ted Turner, chairman of the UN Foundation; and Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

This is the second annual mHealth summit. It opened on Monday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and ends on Wednesday. It has been organized by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, the mHealth Alliance and the National Institutes of Health. About 2,000 participants are expected to be in attendance, representing more than 45 countries.

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