Africa's mHealth breakthroughs to pave way for U.S.

By Mary Mosquera
08:59 AM

The United States will look to Africa to gain knowledge about advances in mobile health technologies because Tanzania, among other countries, already has maternal child health and community health worker programs that rely on smart phones.

While it’s still the early days of mHealth and the digital revolution, “we will see huge breakthroughs in Africa and South Asia,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, speaking at a Monday afternoon mHealth Summit 'Super Session' on global implications for mHealth technologies.

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“Those breakthroughs will eventually become breakthroughs in the U.S. when it addresses the high costs of its healthcare system and frees up $750 billion a year in waste,” Sachs said.

Mobile phones have been used to deliver messages about maternal and child health to mothers who live in areas that are remote or lack communications and other services, said Sharon D’Agostino of Johnson & Johnson.

“Mobile technology can make a difference, getting critical [pregnancy] stage-based information to expectant moms,” she said. Organizations involved in texting messages about maternal and child health are now joining forces, including the mHealth Alliance, United Nations and Johnson & Johnson, to further scale messaging and resources.

Community health workers are the next big focus in mobile health, with technology to equip them to communicate with district hospitals when patients in remote locations need help for conditions, such as an anticipated complicated labor, and also to deliver basic healthcare and communications back to the village or to a patient while en route to the district hospital, said Lee Wells of the Vodafone Foundation.

“We can be much smarter collecting data as we are helping people,” Wells said.

Mobile technology and community health workers together can make a profound change in healthcare delivery in any low-income setting, Sachs said.

“It needs a little ecosystem to make it work. Health workers need to be trained and empowered with phones; they need the support of telecom providers to make sure that bandwidth and technical facilitation is available, they need well-written software and sharing of software to spread best practices and techniques," he added. "And governments need to understand what a great revolution this is."

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It's the single most important thing that can be done now to accelerate the achievement of the UN’s millennium health goals, Sachs said.

Mobile technology is the most rapid diffusion of any technology in history, he said, and accelerates system integration, some of which is underway now, including:

  • Empowerment of community health workers, which will be a fundamental aspect of health delivery in the United States;
  • Patient empowerment;
  • Improving diagnostics, through which malaria can be diagnosed with just a drop of blood;
  • Emergency response, with the ability to call an ambulance available to every person in the world in 10 years; and
  • Epidemic surveillance, by picking up signals in mobile phone use.