GHC Conference: Talking About Mobile Health

I am only attending the Global Health Council Conference for today, unfortunately, but I was at two great sessions this morning. I'm going to highlight the key points in this post and the next, and I hope my colleagues will pick up where I left off for the remainder of the conference.

The first session was called "Transformations: Discovering New Strategies Using Proven Technologies," but it was really all about mobile health (or mHealth, if you prefer the trendy buzzword). The panelists were Paul Meyer of Voxiva, Ashifi Gogo of mPedigree and Andrew Zolli of Pop!Tech.

A key message of this panel is that to be sustainable, we must approach using technology in development work by capitalizing on what's already in place, while recognizing that the technologies will inevitably change. Mobile phones are in the hands of 4 billion people around the world, which means that pretty much everyone has one or has access to one.

Two interesting projects we learned about that capitalize on the ubiquitous nature of cellphones were:

  • mPedigree, a project to address the problem of counterfeit drugs by putting a scratch code on the packaging; the purchaser scratches off the coating to reveal a code to text to a specific number and is told immediately whether the drug is fake or genuine.
  • Project Masiluleke, which takes advantage of the "please call me" text messages common in sub-Saharan Africa to append messages about HIV/AIDS testing to the text message and provide a number for an AIDS hotline; the effect is to educate the receiver about AIDS testing while maintaining their privacy.

mHealth projects like these are helping people think of their phones as a health portal and empowering patients to take charge of their healthcare. They can also be tools for providing real-time information -- about disease outbreaks, for instance -- to health facilities and governments. But that presents a new challenge, because having timely information necessitates a timely response. Human systems have to put in place to effectively use the data, and that not only takes a lot of training but also requires a shift in mindset on the part of healthcare providers. Once you have the information, you have to do something with it.