Mobile Healthcare: The African diagnosis
Mobile communication is set to transform the healthcare industry. Unsurprisingly, change is coming at the hands of the growing presence of cell phones, smartphones and tablets, which have cultivated an emerging trend of mobile health (mHealth) applications aimed at empowering patients. I decided to investigate how mHealth could transform healthcare for the underprivileged.
mHealth apps have the potential to assist patients and care-givers, helping them better understand treatments and subscriptions. While there is great excitement about the boom of the mobile health app space, there are many concerns over whether it will be allowed to grow and whether, someday soon, we’ll be living in a world where helpful and innovative technologies are placed in the hands of those who need it most.
Says Peter Benjamin, mobile healthcare pioneer and Managing Director of Cell-life: “There is huge potential for mHealth, with most of the focus on applications for high-end platforms. In countries like South Africa, however, that isn’t where the problem is. The main issue is not how to make the 50,000 iPhones in the hands of wealthy citizens do amazing things; it is whether we can turn the 42 million basic feature phones in the hands of about 90% of the youth and adults into an effective tool to access healthcare.”
Quoting Clay Shirky, a renowned expert on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies, Peter continued: “These tools don’t get socially interesting until they are technologically boring. mHealth could transform the way underprivileged people receive healthcare throughout Africa by lowering the barriers to access. Today the majority who don’t have private medical insurance have to go to a community clinic to get formal healthcare – a process which would usually involve long travels and queues as well as the risk of being exposed to new infections. These factors all discourage reliance on formal medical institutions in developing nations such as ours, evident by the fact that most chronic conditions in South Africa go undiagnosed and so untreated, and that there are twice as many traditional healers (“Sangomas”) as registered health professionals.”
In South Africa there are approximately 42 million active cellphone users, and around 80% of all people have a cellphone. Unfortunately, while there are many local companies making money from ringtones and other downloadable entertainment media, there are very few socially relevant or developmental services.
Although great innovation is happening in the health and wellness mobile ecosystem, it’s dif?cult for patients in rural and low-earning African communities to access top-shelf mobile technologie,; which would give them the ability make use of the large stock of cutting-edge healthcare apps available today.
A cellular cure for a cellular issue
Peter Benjamin believes that by communicating to phones most people have, simple feature phones have the potential to bring formal healthcare within the reach of all – easily, freely and immediately:
His non-profit organization, Cell-Life, has the vision of providing innovative and appropriate technology for the management of HIV as well as other infectious diseases such as TB, to help improve the lives of people infected and affected by these conditions in South Africa.
Based on a deep understanding of the unique challenges facing the development and implementation of e-health systems in the African public sector, their practical insights and research enables them to address health-related logistical issues in developing countries (including the provision and distribution of anti-retroviral (ARV) treatments, continuous patient monitoring and evaluation, and collection and communication of vital data) and develop context-specific solutions.
Starting as a research project at the University of Cape Town in 2001, its founders initially created a product called “Aftercare”; which was a cellphone system linking nurses and home-based care-givers treating HIV+ patients in Gugulethu and elsewhere. In 2007 they launched the ‘Cellphone for HIV’ project – exploring a range of applications for information, communication and interactive services to bring relief to this sector, with products such as:
iDART: Developed in collaboration with the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation, this solution was designed to support the dispensing of public ARV drugs. It supports pharmacists in their critical role of accurate administration to an increasing number of patients. Today, the intelligent Dispensing of ART software is used by pharmacists to manage the supplies of ARV stocks, print reports and co-ordinate collections by patients.
Communicate: With this multifaceted tool, a range of cellphone services are used to provide information and communication services that are useful to people infected or affected by HIV such as; mass messaging for prevention, mass information for positive living, linking patients and clinics, peer-to-peer counseling and support, building capacity of HIV-related organisations; monitoring and evaluation.
With these tools and having pledged its commitment to combatting diseases that are threatening the livelihood of the mother-continent and its people, Cell-Life has achieved global prestige – receiving the 2011 AfriComNet award for Excellence in HIV and AIDS communication in Africa in the New / Social media category; and the 2011 mHealth Alliance and UN Foundation award from the UN Secretary General’s ‘Every Woman Every Child’ Strategy, for mHealth projects that will have an impact on maternal and child health.