Mobile may help heal Africa

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mobile healthWith the world’s highest rates of HIV and TB, health care provision has to be at the top of most African countries’ agendas — and innovative use of mobile technologies may be just the salve they are looking for.

Misha Kay, who examines cellphone technology for the World Health Organisation (WHO), recently told the Mobile Health Summit in Cape Town that there was a “fairly healthy groudswell of activity” in mobile-health initiatives.

There are more than 5-billion mobile phone subscribers in the world, and 85% of the planet covered by a commercial wireless signal. In a recent global survey, the WHO found that only 19 of 114 countries had no mobile health initiatives. In fact, Kay said, most countries were running several projects aimed at supporting health care provision.

Kay reportedly told the conference that while south-east Asia, the Americas and Europe had the most initiatives, around 75 of the surveyed African countries were also making use of this technology. The survey was based on a 2009, report “The opportunity of mobile technology for healthcare in the developing world”.

Obed Bapela, South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Communications, in his opening address at the conference reportedly said that ICT was essential to improving the quality of life, particularly in rural areas. He said mobile health could play a significant role in reaching this objective.

Collectively referred to as mHealth, the study showed that the most common schemes worldwide ranged from helplines, free emergency calls, appointment reminders and “mobile telemedicine”, where doctors in different locations consult one another over the phone.

But in Africa, mHealth is being used in ways which are far more innovative and suited to the challenges faced on the continent. Jane Mgone, a programme assistant for the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO), told Memeburn of a project in Tanzania, where the cost of getting to healthcare facilities for treatment was often prohibitive for patients. In response, CCBRT, a non-governmental organisation, uses M-Pesa, the mobile-based money transfer system, to send money to patients to help cover travel costs.

The WHO survey found that that the barriers to mHealth included cost of mobile communication, a lack of knowledge, as well as health policies that did not recognise mHealth as a valid strategy.
While concerns regarding mHealth in Europe centred on the lack of legal guidelines on privacy and confidentiality, African concerns were headed by cost and infrastructure.

As Bapela told the conference, affordability was paramount to the provision of this service. He also noted that it was important that mobile health should comply with the legislation in terms of privacy and doctor/patient confidentiality.

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