The director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr.Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, tweeted this last month. He argued that the world must harness the power of digital technologies for use in global health, to make health services more accessible and affordable to all
The 21st century is a digital age and technology must be embraced. Many innovative technologies have already been incorporated into many facets of the health care system, from 3D printing of prosthetics, to personalized medicine and virtual reality therapies1. Within the last decade, the number of individuals using smart and wearable devices to monitor or manage their health has become increasingly popular. This has given rise to a new model of health delivery – mobile health (frequently referred to as mHealth).
mHealth is a powerful tool that has the potential to disseminate global health objectives. It has the ability to alter the face of health services worldwide, especially in low- and middle-income countries where healthcare infrastructure is constrained by resource limitations2. This has been widely acknowledged, including by the United Nations (UN) that has recognized the importance of mHealth as a key innovation in advancing health care globally by outlining it as a tool to help achieve the goals set by the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health3. Alongside the UN, the WHO has also included mhealth in the Global eHealth survey4.
In 2018, the number of mobile phone subscribers worldwide was estimated to be 4.57 billion and is continuously growing5. This equates to approximately 60% of the world population. This growth is most apparent in limited resource settings, where mobile phone usage has increased from 5% in 2000 to a staggering 93.6% in 20176. This phone phenomenon has, according to a 2016 study done by the World Bank, resulted in more people having access to mobile phones than clean water7.
So what does this mean for global health?
mHealth is being applied to everything from reminding patients to take their medication to enabling remote health clinics to track medical supplies. It plays a pivotal role in maternal and child health, and in lessening the prevalence of diseases associated with poverty such as: tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS8.
The technology company IBM and Sierra Leone’s largest mobile provider, AirTel, launched one such mHealth initiative during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. It enabled local people to send free messages about Ebola outbreaks to the government. This allowed heat-maps that link emerging issues to location information to be created9.
Another instance, where mHealth has been successful was in Haiti following the 2012 earthquake. Tracking population movements through mobile phones played an important role in mapping of cholera outbreaks, and thus prevented the spread10.
mHealth can also be applied to maternal and child care. There are mobile phone services designed for expecting and new mothers. Culturally sensitive targeted messages timed at their stage of pregnancy or motherhood is sent on a weekly basis. These messages highlight warning health signs for mother and child, information on nutrition and parenting. The majority of subscribers receive the information as entertaining mini-dramas, communicated via voice messages. The voice service was created to reach individuals with low literacy.
mHealth interventions are rapidly changing the face of healthcare in the developing world, especially as smartphones have become more affordable and widely available. mHealth is now an indispensible part of healthcare. It plays a pivotal role in responding to disease outbreaks, in improving general public health and helping countries achieve their health-related goals.