Mobile health technologies: Hype or hope?

Copyright: Samuel Aranda / Panos

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  • Mobile technologies, or mHealth, help fill gaps in traditional healthcare
  • They serve as a tool to shorten health service in developing countries
  • More research needed to find out how extensive mHealth can be used

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[MANILA] Mobile and wireless technologies, also known as mHealth, are aiding health objectives in developing countries where traditional healthcare may prevent patients from receiving optimal care.

In its presentation during the Global Forum on Research and Innovation for Health 2015 held in Manila last August, the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) said with about 6.3 billion mobile subscribers worldwide, about 80 per cent from developing countries, health services offered through mobile phones can reach even those without sufficient access to traditional healthcare.

With the use of mHealth, access to healthcare facilities, waiting times, health service delivery system quality and lack of well-trained healthcare personnel have become less of an issue, says Hoon Sang Lee, a medical doctor and health advisor for KOICA.

Lee cited examples of how mHealth effectively decreased high maternal and child mortality rates in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Through a UNICEF (the UN Children’s Fund) project in Rwanda, he said, text messages were used to register mothers and newborn infants, including pregnancy, prenatal care and delivery. Primary healthcare services for newborn infants and children, as well as basic health information on their growth and development, were communicated through mobile phones.

“What we really need is further research and scaling up to find out whether mobile health is really hype or hope.”

By Hoon Sang Lee, health advisor for KOICA

In a project in Malawi, smartphones were used to provide early diagnosis and treatment for trachoma, a contagious bacterial infection of the eye. By responding in real time, patients could be diagnosed and treated early.

Other examples of mHealth he cited include medical dose management for long-term daily intake for AIDS or tuberculosis patients, diagnosis and treatment of pediatric pneumonia and malaria, mobile banking in the health industry and a supply chain management system that reports drug stock statuses and replenishes them promptly in healthcare centres.

In Vietnam, the smart public health centre was created using telehealth, which offers highly qualified healthcare services for rural areas where the medical infrastructure is insufficient, says Hyejin Lee, a professor of family medicine at Seoul National University Hospital.

Telemedicine technology includes tele-ultrasound, remote diagnosis ultrasound and sophisticated robotic surgery between facilities at different locations. Patients scan images through tele-sono scan technology and 3D ultrasound scanning and send them via internet to medical experts. Doctors then diagnose the images remotely and diseases can be detected early.

“The use of mHealth should be integrated into existing health system functions rather than be stand-alone solutions,” says Alain Labrique, founding director of the Johns Hopkins University Global mHealth Initiative.

While Hoon Sang Lee notes that coordination and partnerships are needed to make mHealth successful in developing countries, mHealth is a support mechanism that cannot easily replace healthcare service itself.

“It does not solve every health problem but can be used as a tool to support and shorten traditional health service. What we really need is further research and scaling up to find out whether mobile health is really hype or hope,” he advises.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.