9 April 2011

Kenya: Mobile Phones to Offer Health Sector the Kiss of Life


Nairobi — Kenya has been in the spotlight for all its rosy news regarding the rapidly growing mobile telephony and Internet coverage. As of last September, there were nearly nine million Internet users and over 22 million mobile phone users, and counting.

The Kenyan population, according to last year's census is about 40 million. About 22 million or nearly 60 per cent of Kenyans are over 15. This is roughly equal to the number of mobile phone subscriptions.

On the other hand, there are only 17 physicians for 100,000 Kenyans and 120 nurses for the same population. These figures are even worse in the rural and hard-to-reach areas as these professionals are mostly in urban comfort zones.

To resuscitate this sector, developing countries are starting to explore ways of tapping into the power of mobile phones and Internet connectivity to reverse the trend of the health outcomes.

Disease prevention

Studies have shown that mobile phones can improve access to, quality of and efficiency in the delivery of health care, as well as disease prevention and well-being.

True, telecommunications industry stakeholders are not health experts, and health experts rarely fully comprehend the potential that technology may provide in achieving critical health objectives.

Therefore, the two groups need to work closely together to expand services using the power of mobile phones and the Internet.

M-health, or mobile health, is a term used for the practice of medical and public health, supported by mobile devices and has been identified as a viable solution to the ills plaguing the health sector.

While m-health certainly has application for industrialised nations, the field has emerged in recent years as largely an application for developing countries, stemming from the rapid rise of mobile phone penetration in these countries.

The promise of mobile health is to achieve co-location through technology, allowing patients and health professionals to interact without the need to be in the same place.

Phones - whether they be cell phones, smart phones or mobile-enhanced diagnostic devices -- have the ability to revolutionise several components of the health delivery system, including collecting clinical and community health data and monitoring a patient's vital signs in real time.

This augments the direct provision of care by linking health care workers to patients, delivering health care information to practitioners, researchers and patients, as well as addressing supply chain management problems.

More importantly, this mobile phone-based model potentially sees the patient, not the health care provider or the device manufacturer, footing the cost of network connectivity through a phone subscription.

Further, mobile phones could play a significant role in health financing systems, including authentication of health insurance subscribers, monitoring of health benefits and paying for health services and products.

M-health is not new

M-health is not new in Kenya. In 2008, for example, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funded an m-health programme in Western Kenya where HIV-positive patients were sent weekly text messages inquiring about their well-being.

Patients responded to these message by saying everything was OK or they had a problem. If there was a problem, a health worker would call back to assist them.

Results of this project involving 500 patients show that mobile phones can be a useful tool in supporting HIV-positive patients.

M-health has also been used at limited capacity in Kenya for education and awareness programmes largely spreading mass information from source to recipient through short message services (SMS).

SMSs are relatively unobtrusive and provide an avenue to reach far-reaching areas that may have limited access to public health information, workers and clinics

Fortunately, Kenya has a database of all health professionals and health facilities complete with all services offered in each of the facilities -- an important foundation for m-health.

Mr Wambugu is a monitoring and evaluation specialist.

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