The use of mobile phones in providing health services is well documented. In countries like Kenya and South Africa, SMS reminders are used to remind Aids patients to take their medication. Other projects use mobile to educate people about malaria and help manage diabetes. That’s all well and good, but a number of these projects are the preserve of NGOs, who are reliant on continual funding to keep going.
As with any kind of public funding, there is a danger that it will run out. This means that NGOs cannot always sustain M-Health projects. One way of getting around this is by encouraging entrepreneurship in the mobile health sector.
Marcha Neethling of the Praekelt foundation, which “builds open source, scalable mobile technologies and solutions to improve the health and wellbeing of people living in poverty”, believes simply that “the NGO model does not work”.
On the other hand, there is definitely a case for commercial interests to enter into the M-Health sector says Dr Peter Benjamin, Managing Director of Cell Life.
“There’s a huge buzz around M-Health, you can go to an international M-Health conference every three days,” he says.
Marius Conradie, head of M-Health for African cellular giant Vodacom, feels that much of this buzz comes from a need for the commercialisation of the field.
“In order for any M-Health initiative to be sustainable, it has to be commercially sustainable,” he says.
Benjamin cautions, however, that –as of yet — “there aren’t any major business models that have been shown to work”.
Neethling believes, though, partnerships are critical to M-Health working well.
The partnerships that really work, she says, are ones which “bring together everyone from government, doctors and network operators to sangomas“.
According to Benjamin, there are two primary ways mobile can be used to in healthcare:
- To help the health system do what it needs to do, but a little more cheaply and effectively. Cellphones can be put in every health centre for data collection, for example.
- To impact in providing healthcare to individuals. This includes reminding patients to take their medication and educating them about healthcare, to complex examples like using a cellphone’s camera to do remote dermatological tests on diabetes patients.
Large tech players are already staking a claim in the M-Health space.
Internet giant Google, for example, launched a health tips service in Uganda. The service allows people to SMS in their health related questions and uses Google’s search algorithm to respond with one of over 6 000 pre-programmed answers.
Anyone looking to get into the M-Health sphere shouldn’t, however, rush technology onto people, cautions Conradie.
“It’s about using mobile technology that people are used to,” he says. If a remote rural community have never used smartphones, you probably shouldn’t be developing a high-level app for them.
He adds that if M-Health is to be commercially viable, “Government participation is key”. National governments, after all, are frequently a country’s biggest investor in health.
According Iluyemi, an important part of this innovation entails moving away from seeing Mobile health as an exclusively service and software-based sector.
“People are developing devices for mobile health,” he says, but stresses that more innovation is needed.
Iluyemi uses the example of researchers who turned basic materials into a fully functional microscope that attaches to a cellphone’s camera as an example of the kind of hardware innovation he thinks the sector is ripe for.
As Benjamin says, “M-Health can be as simple as sending a message to a sick relative,” but in order to operate to its full potential, it needs fully engaged, innovative entrepreneurship.
Image: hang in there