What the Global South Can Teach the World about the Power of Mobile for Health

Over the course of nearly two decades working in the field of global health, I've had the opportunity to travel to, live and work among remarkable people in some of the most remote communities in the world. In countries such as Sudan and Bangladesh, I've learned so much from countless mothers, doctors, frontline health workers and policy makers doing their best under some of the most challenging circumstances imaginable.

While it may sometimes seem as though these places and these communities exist in a different world from the comfort and convenience of life in the United States or Europe, our increasingly connected world - with nearly 7 billion mobile phone subscriptions - means that our experiences and needs are also connected in new and previously unimagined ways. My time spent researching mobile health, implementing mHealth projects, and facilitating the development of related policies and strategies has taught me that the global community has much to learn from the success stories of mHealth pioneers in the Global South. Many innovations in mHealth have emerged from low- and middle-income countries out of necessity to provide access to services and information where they were not available in the past, as well as to provide a platform for giving voice to communities on issues of most importance to them. There is also greater government leadership and openness towards the supportive policy development, collaboration and partnership needed to harness the power that mobiles offer.

Take, for example, Ananya: A Partnership for Better Health. This program in the state of Bihar, India, illustrates how effective partnership can create health equity for rural populations. "Ananya", meaning unique, brings together the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Government of Bihar and a range of partners with the goal of improving quality and access to healthcare in Bihar, the third most-populous state of India. Using tools such as Mobile Kunji, a set of flashcards imprinted with toll free mobile short codes that have accompanying audio messages, the Ananya project is making progress on key indicators in nutrition, health and sanitation. The flashcards and messages reinforce important health information, while also helping to increase respect for community health workers and empowering them to provide better care and services.

Bihar, India may not resemble New York City, but many of the same models and tools are now being explored to deliver better health services in underserved communities throughout the United States. Innovative mHealth programs like Ananya have given rise to a valuable set of lessons learned that can now be adapted to create programs here in the U.S. and other high-income countries. This "south to north" learning model is becoming increasingly popular, as its benefits become progressively more apparent. By fostering global mHealth collaboration, we have the potential to restructure health care delivery for the better, both domestically and abroad.

Leaders in the field have recognized this potential and have developed ways to increase the exchange of information, including my favorite - cross-country learning. Some tools are technological, such as online courses offered by TechChange, or Health Unbound, an online resource center for mHealth that boasts over 8,500 members and 20,000+ resources. In-person collaboration throughout the world is helping to further encourage the dynamic exchange of ideas from south to south and south to north, with the largest example being the mHealth Summit, which will begin in a few short days.

The fifth annual Summit will bring together corporate leaders, government officials, designers, implementers, health professionals and non-profits to collaborate on advancing mobile technology for health. In this context, the Global Health Track at the Summit will give a diverse range of people exposure to the models, measurements and success stories that I hear about daily in my work on global mHealth.

When the mHealth Alliance was created nearly five years ago, the founding partners
sought to establish a neutral organization that could convene the global community to promote the type of cross-sector collaboration needed to help the field grow beyond a fragmented collection of pilot projects. The Alliance's early years focused heavily on bringing global knowledge to the emerging mHealth communities in developing countries. But as we've expanded our own work to prioritize in-country engagements, we have come to recognize that perhaps the most important knowledge sharing we can support today will be achieved by highlighting the innovative work being done in places like Uganda, South Africa, Bangladesh or Tanzania.

When we combine mobile technology with health information and services, the results can be astoundingly empowering - for mothers, children, health workers and entire communities. The potential for this power belongs to every man, woman and child that can access a mobile phone. Soon enough, every person on earth will fall into that category. As the power of mobile connects our world more than ever before - and as we collectively strive to reach important health goals for all humanity - the time has never been better to listen and learn from our colleagues and friends that have used mHealth to great effect in the Global South.

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.