Nairobi — Mobile health (mHealth) applications such as text messages could save more than a million lives in Sub-Saharan Africa over the next five years, according to a report.
The report, produced by consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) India, says that mobile phone interventions to ensure patients comply with treatment, medical stock is available and healthcare workers stick to treatment guidelines could save some of the three million lives lost each year across Africa to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB), malaria and pregnancy-related conditions.
"Many of the deadly conditions are relatively simple to treat, prevent or contain. SMS reminders to check stock levels at health centres have shown promising results in reducing stock-outs of key combination therapy medication for malaria, TB and HIV," it says.
"Delivering mobile-assisted awareness to pregnant mothers and traditional birth attendants could reduce prenatal and maternal mortality by up to 30 per cent, while programmes that track mobile-usage patterns have been very successful in predicting disease outbreaks and in reporting malaria reporting adherence," according to the report.
Africa's low adoption of mHealth solutions is mainly due to a lack of health literacy among patients, says Shashank Tripathi, leader of the strategy and research practice at PwC India and one of the study authors.
"We believe that, whereas the cost [of mobile phones] may be an issue affecting uptake [of mHealth], a bigger issue is awareness. People who are unaware of the need to consult a health service will not consult it," Tripathi tells SciDev.Net. Consequently, he recommends intensified awareness campaigns.
Patricia Mechael, executive director of the US-based mHealth Alliance, says mHealth can help to strengthen overall health systems.
For instance, she says, equipping field health workers with mHealth skills and phone applications can enable them to instantly communicate with authorities so they can take rapid action.
The potential number of lives that mHealth initiatives could save in Africa over five years to 2017 differs greatly, from 1,500 in Botswana up to 143,000 in Somalia, the report estimates.
Besides differences in mobile phone ownership and use, these variations are also due to differing mortality rates for individual countries, says Tripathi.
But unlike the report's optimistic outlook, two recent review studies found little evidence that the mHealth initiative actually lead to improved health outcomes in developing countries.
"There has been a consistent gap in terms of evidence linking mHealth to improved health and operational benefits, and this is particularly true when it comes to studies in low- and middle-income countries," Mechael says.
The report was launched at the annual Mobile World Conference in Barcelona, Spain, earlier this year (25-28 February).