By Ken Terry
The use of e-health technologies, including mobile health, is spreading rapidly in low- and medium-income countries around the world, according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO). In part, this is because the use of mobile phones and computers is growing in these developing nations, the report said. But less than a quarter of the surveyed health programs used e-health technologies, and their reliance on private donors — which provided nearly half of their financing — is one factor limiting their expansion, the WHO report said.
The data on which the report is based comes from the Center for Health Market Innovations (CHMI), which has been collecting information on public and private programs likely to improve health in developing countries since 2007. Due to the unreliability of government data, the WHO report focuses exclusively on private-sector programs.
Of the 657 programs that WHO looked at in Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania and Viet Nam, 176 were identified as “technology enabled,” meaning they used “information and communications technology” (ICT) to improve healthcare.
The leading technologies employed were phones, computers, and texting. The latter fell into third place because so many people in these countries are illiterate, the report said.
Among the purposes for which providers used e-health technology were extending geographic access, data management, facilitating communications between patients and providers, and improving treatment and diagnosis. The importance of geographic access, which was a reason for using ICT in 74 programs, underscores the growing use of telehealth in countries with a “critical shortage of health workers and poor distribution of service providers,” the report said.
Among the leading types of telehealth in emerging countries are “video chat” programs and phone “hotlines” that provide remote access to physicians.
The types of healthcare most likely to include an e-health component, in descending order, are emergency care, tuberculosis, mental health, malaria, general primary care, maternal and child health, and HIV/AIDS.
A study published in February by the Boston Consulting Group and Norwegian telecom company Telenor Group determined that with more than 500 mobile health projects running around the world, the mHealth market may be nearing a global tipping point.
Additionally, a 2010 article in Health Affairs showed that e-health technologies were being embraced in some developing nations. The use of personal digital assistants and mobile devices holds promise for data collection, the article said. And another paper in the same issue suggested that new government policies were needed to foster patient mobility and data exchange.