The United Nations, through two of its agencies – the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – has launched the ‘Mobile Health’ initiative (mHealth).
‘mHealth’ involves the use of mobile phones for healthcare purposes. The agencies are currently testing mobile solutions to help people with non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes, cardiovascular maladies, respiratory diseases and cancer to better manage their conditions. The agencies also hope to encourage people to quit smoking, exercise more and eat healthier.
ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré believes that diseases can be controlled through the intervention of mHealth initiatives. “Technological innovations are changing the landscape of disease prevention and control,” he said. “The widespread availability of mobile technology, including in many of the least developed countries, is an exceptional opportunity to expand the use of e-health” (which includes computer, Web, mobile phone and other electronic technologies). He was speaking in Dubai at Telecom World 2012, a yearly event at which experts, policy makers and leaders come together to share ideas on the future of global telecommunications.
The initiative builds on current projects like WHO’s use of mobile devices to gather data on tobacco use in 17 countries, covering half the world’s population. Mobile phones have also been shown to help health care providers offer better care and deter harmful practices. In Kenya, according to a recent study, government health care workers were sent text messages coaching them on the proper malaria-treatment protocol. Health clinic workers can send alerts when they run low on medications to avoid stock shortages.
Harsha Thirumurthy, an economist whose research focuses on the link between health and economic outcomes in low-income settings, informs that several aspects of the mHealth interventions warrant further research. In the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, he and Richard T. Lester strongly recommend a more thorough investigation of how text-messaging interventions compare with other interventions such as feeding programmes or home visits by community workers. It will be splendid to see mHealth help induce behavioural change and get people to better adhere to treatment regimens for diseases like malaria and tuberculosis.