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An array of diseases, from malaria and tuberculosis to chronic ailments, could one day be diagnosed cheaply via mobile phones, with the aid of wireless technologies that enable information to move instead of patients.

The present and future application of such technologies to mobile health — or mHealth — was one of the subjects discussed by technology and health experts at the second annual mHealth Summit in Washington DC this week (8–10 November).

They said that diagnostics and monitoring devices attached to mobile phones will enable remote diagnosis and secure better treatment for patients and pregnant women living in remote areas of the developing world.

According to Robert Weierbach, a technology consultant with the mHealth Alliance, the main benefit of wireless technologies is that they extend services that are currently unavailable in the poorest countries and cover more people at a lower cost — without any increase in the work force.

"As far as remote diagnostics for women, a low-cost sonogram device could be available at the far reaches of the clinic and the images could be captured and read by someone with the skills necessary to interpret them," said Weierbach. "These devices are currently prototypes and the estimated cost is around US$100 [per device]."

A camera attached to a cell phone to detect malaria or tuberculosis is one example of such technology. Mobile phones could also be used to help improve disease management and outcomes.

"We believe that developing wireless technologies, which extend the physical reach of clinicians by moving information instead of moving patients, will both extend the range of influence of clinicians in the developing world and help to reduce the cost of care in developed world," said Joseph Smith, chief medical and science officer of West Wireless Health Institute, United States.

With quicker evaluation of patients' health and prevention of hospitalisation, health care costs also come down, he said.

So far the main obstacles are the time-consuming transition from ideas and prototypes to the commercial markets, the meeting heard. Also, devices attached to mobile phones for health purposes have to be cost-effectivene and gain the trust of physicians, entrepreneurs and fund donors.   

Apart from mobile phones, cloud computing — which allows researchers to access the latest web applications and databases via the Internet around the world — is also going to enhance opportunities for mobile health, according to Weierbach.

"Next year, when we have this conference again, we will have some very good examples of where we are actually going with this technology."  

See below for a UN Foundation video about mHealth and its potential uses in developing countries: