mHealth: Technological Change at the Frontline of Healthcare

When somebody says 'mHealth' or mobile health, there can be a tendency to think primarily of fitness wristbands and lifestyle apps to monitor weight, count calories or record the number of steps taken. But we should associate mHealth equally with the steps taken by various governments, international organizations, NGOs and individuals to place mobile technology into the hands of frontline health workers in low- and middle-income countries.

Currently, health systems in developing countries are overstretched and overburdened. A massive global health worker shortage, which is estimated to grow to 12.9 million by 2035 from the current deficit of 7.2 million (as recently highlighted by a WHO report), makes it even more imperative to support frontline health workers through mobile technology that provides education, improves efficiency and enables deliverable health services. Millions of mobile connections are being made every year in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and capitalizing on this tremendous growth is vital.

Giving frontline health workers access to mobile technology means giving them the potential to address some of the world's most devastating health issues such as malaria, HIV/AIDS and maternal and child mortality. Frontline health workers are the heart and guts of effective health systems and are usually based within the community they serve. Commonly, they are the only link to the health system for millions of people. A WHO study found that training community health workers in Bangladesh reduced maternal mortality by two-thirds and still births by 40%, results which, if applied globally, could save the lives of 120,000 mothers and 96,000 babies per year. These types of results, however, require the provision of quality training and continuing education for health workers, as this leads to better diagnosis and treatment, reduced attrition rates and, ultimately, improved health outcomes. mHealth can facilitate and improve these factors, while also being used to tackle the growth of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in developing countries, such as heart disease and mental health, which are predicated to overtake those diseases we traditionally associate with low-income countries.

A report published by my organization has shown that mHealth and mobile health education can reduce the cost of frontline health worker training by 75% and rapidly increase the number of health workers via blended learning (i.e., leveraging visuals, video and audio), enhanced data collection and remote monitoring. With evidence showing that paper-based health training is only mildly effective, especially in areas of low literacy, mHealth must be embraced to overcome literacy and geographical restraints. Of course, addressing health issues must mean simultaneously addressing poverty, education, agriculture, banking and more. Mobile, portable technology is being used to great effect in this regard.

Nevertheless, to truly nurture the potential of mHealth and the array of mobile for development services, we must also understand the challenges. Until recently, collaboration and coordination between the hundreds of organizations that are trying to promote this use of technology has been lacking, but the guidance of organizations such as the mHealth Alliance and WHO have begun to effect a significant change. In addition to enhanced collaboration, we need to learn from sectors that fall outside of the public health domain. By embracing, for example, the educational space (e.g., K12 and STEM education, flipped classroom models, etc.) and the digital asset realm, the international development sector will be able to deliver mHealth-based training and health monitoring more efficiently.

Health content, if developed smartly and with the end-user in mind, will train thousands if not millions, and it can be delivered via mobile directly into the hands of frontline health workers. By using mobile technology as an avenue to deliver vital health training, enable more efficient monitoring and data collection, and improve the delivery of health services, we can ultimately reduce the number of unnecessary deaths associated with poor health and poverty.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, the mHealth Alliance and HIMSS Media in conjunction with the mHealth Summit, which will take place in the Washington, DC, area on December 8-11, 2013. The Summit brings together leaders across sectors to advance the use of wireless technology to improve health outcomes, both in the United States and globally. For more information about the mHealth Summit, click here.