When people hear the word “innovation” in health, they often think of the kinds of things that are newly developed in laboratories—things like machines and medicines that have the power to diagnose and treat health challenges. Those advancements are certainly important, but some of the most interesting innovations these days are about finding ways to connect people to these tools, and providing education on how to use them for long-term good.
And the best of these innovations have one thing in common: simplicity. In the last decade, new technologies have become available, and they are helping to connect us with medical innovations. Their simplicity and ease of use is providing more options for people all over the world to interact and participate in their own health decisions. Online portals, video and podcasts, and personalized electronic health records have made for faster, cheaper access to health information. But one device is outshining the rest: the mobile phone.
Many years ago, as a senior technical advisor for global health at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), we would often lament that we had communication challenges to reach people with valuable messages. Fewer than half of the world’s population had ever made a phone call in their lifetime. Today, I can tell you that the success of the mobile phone has exceeded our wildest imagination. Nimble, small, and less reliant on infrastructure, mobile phones have become part of the daily lives of nearly 80 percent of the world’s people. In 2010, there were more than five billion mobile subscriptions worldwide, reaching more than 50 percent of households even in many developing countries.
Mobile applications and the use of SMS texting are supporting patient diagnostics, health care provider training, remote patient data collection, patient education and awareness, remote patient monitoring, and epidemic outbreak tracking. The power of this technology to improve the lives of underserved populations in remote and low-resource areas, particularly women, is astounding.
For instance, on the Innovation Working Group for the United Nations Secretary General on Women and Children’s Health that I co-chair, we’re exploring the use of simple interventions such as checklist for birth preparedness to improve the health of women and newborns in low- and middle-income countries. This checklist, stored on a mobile device, can give women and their families in low-resource access to valuable, timely information to help prepare for potential complications before childbirth so that the mother and their newborn child can have the best potential to survive and thrive.
We’ve also explored how we can scale mobile health communications to reach directly to the “end-user” mothers, male partners and families throughout the early life course of pregnancy and child rearing. Today, pregnant women in Bangladesh with little other access to the health care system are receiving personalized messages to educate them about childbirth and remind them of the importance of immunizations. In Tanzania, health officials are collecting real-time information about child mortality on their mobile phones, enabling quick responses to problems. In the United States (and increasingly in Russia), a service called text4baby provides underserved mothers with personalized mobile health messages timed to their pregnancy, delivery, and newborns’ needs. And more recently new mobile games developed with funding from USAID will be available to educate pregnant women in health clinics in India about maternal health.
Mobile technology does not make other health technologies obsolete—it builds upon them. In addition to filling a communications gap in places where no formal health system exists, mobile technology can also strengthen existing health channels by making it easy to link patients back to a broader health system. By extending the reach of health information and services to hard-to-reach populations, mobile technology can reduce the ongoing costs of supporting public health systems by providing a simple method of collecting data, monitoring disease outbreaks, and communicating important health information to the public.
Innovations like mobile health technology need to be seen as an integral part of health policy, and governments and the private sector can work together toward this goal. There is an opportunity to make customized information accessible, understandable, and timely to advance global health and well-being in ways that were previously unimagined. It’s a promising opportunity that we should all embrace.