Mobile Health: Access for the World’s Poor

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NEW YORK, June 3, 2010 – By 2013, 95 percent of the planet will have a mobile phone, according to Karl Brown, Associated Director of Applied Technology at the Rockefeller Foundation.

As the global recession slows progress toward the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for public health, this remarkable fact has profound implications for healthcare delivery in the developing world.

As a consequence, the field of “Mobile Health”—the application of cell phones to many aspects of healthcare—is exploding across Asia in the public, private and NGO sectors.

In a panel discussion held at the Asia Society headquarters, Dr. Brown was joined by Ariel Pablos-Mendez, Managing Director of the Rockefeller Foundation and Professor of Clinical Medicine and Public Health at Columbia University, Leo Anthony Celi, MD, Founder of Sana, an award-winning MIT-based multidisciplinary software research group, and David Aylward, Executive Director of the mHealth Alliance.

The group highlighted the potential of mobile phone technology to offer millions of the world’s poor cheap and effective access to state of the art care that is otherwise effectively denied them. “Let’s not forget that there are areas where the ratio of the doctor to the population is one to twenty thousand, and I don’t think we will ever be able to train enough doctors to serve those areas,” noted Celi.

The availability of cheap cell phones with text messaging, cameras, and voice recorders presents program developers with an assortment of applications. Karl Brown noted, “The other thing that is compelling about the cell phone is the number of different ways it can be used… we have identified, I think, twelve different categories of medical and public health applications and there are probably at least twenty applications.” These applications allow mobile users to receive tele-medication, tele-consultation, and medicine verification in some of the most remote regions in the world.

The economic opportunities for mobile health are also a major driving force for a standard platform. In the last five years, almost every IT company has created a health division. Pablos-Mendez noted, “The world is already spending six trillion dollars a year in health, and this is likely to double in the next 20 years.”

Despite the advances of cell phone technology, the panelists had many concerns about the barriers to implementing mobile health. One of the major issues is interoperability. Trying to get the medical field, governments, and IT companies to work together to build a universal platform is very complicated and challenging. Pablos-Mendez commended examples such as Thailand and Rwanda, where these groups are already working well together to implement mobile health programs. Aylward noted that developing countries are actually ahead of the US. in this regard, though they have only a brief window in which to avoid the mistakes and redundant systems for which this country is paying billions in extra costs.

The discussion ended with expressions of optimism and enthusiasm about the future of mobile health. The panel agreed that most of the technology is already in place, and as it improves, so will reliance upon it for healthcare delivery, as pressures for cost savings in this sector continue to grow.

Reported by Zachary Raske