How Digital Health is Being Successfully Used in Developing Countries

Anesthesiologist with cellphone nearby
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How Digital Health is Being Successfully Used in Developing Countries

There are more cellphones on the planet than there are toilets or toothbrushes. Most of the world population now has access to a mobile phone and a mobile signal. Although any existing technology available today is far from a panacea for solving modern problems, there has never before been more potential for building personal connections and using new technologies in purposeful ways.

Many would agree that technology is increasing the quality of life for almost everyone.

In countries where access to health care is difficult and infrastructure is poor, "mHealth" can play an important role in bridging the divide between the developed and developing world.

With the help of the ubiquitous mobile phone, diseases are now easier to diagnose and track, information can be disseminated quicker and reach more people, and online health education is more readily available to citizens in developing nations that are traditionally underserved.

Receiving Health Text Messages Worldwide

In her speech at the United Nations, Nancy Finn, a writer and thought leader on the impact of digital communication, presented some successful and inspiring pilot projects that are underway in the developing world.

Short Message Services (SMS), for example, are now being widely used to educate people and provide them with health information on best practices.

In Bangladesh, new and expectant mothers can opt in to receive twice weekly SMS reminders about checkups, medication and nutrition guidelines. Across Africa, text messages in local dialects are sent to cellphone users to tell them about vaccination programs, malaria prevention, nutrition and basic hygiene.

Mobile phone interventions using texting have also been trialed in Cambodia, the Philippines and Democratic Republic of Congo to help with diabetes self-management.

Researchers from the University of Oxford, UK, recently conducted the first systematic study of mobile phone use during illness in rural China and India. Their results were published in the journal World Development. The authors suggest that, generally, mobile phone use is associated with better access to health care. However, there were also some negative outcomes, such as higher expenses for unnecessary treatments and more pronounced health marginalization of those without mobile phones.

Technology for Remote Areas

Digital health efforts in the developing world are making health care more accessible to those in remote areas. In areas where there might be no running water or electricity, but there is a mobile signal, examinations and tests can now be performed and interpreted with the help of digital technology.

For example, images of suspicious tissue can be taken with a cellphone and sent to an expert at a local hospital (or abroad) for inspection and treatment opinions.

In Botswana, local health workers have been taking images of skin rashes of HIV patients and sending them for expert review using their mobile phones.

This type of digital communication has been used for cervical cancer screening as well.

The scarcity of specialized laboratories is yet another challenge in developing countries. The Nikon Coolscope digital microscope is an example of a device that enables accurate sample analysis no matter the location. After a tissue sample is taken and dissected, it is placed inside the Coolscope. The device is able to digitalize the image and transmit it via satellite to a remote, specialized facility that can analyze it within 30 minutes, potentially saving the life of the user.

Knowledge, too, can travel a lot faster with the help of digital technology and novel ways of communicating.

Patricia Monthe, originally from Cameroon, describes how she almost lost her sister in infancy due to a wrong diagnosis. Monthe now promotes a virtual platform that can easily bring health resources to professionals and patients in developing countries and increase the chances of survival for patients like her sister.

Studies among health professionals in the developing world also show that training and supervision will be required to fully utilize the potential of mHealth initiatives. More effort can be expected in this domain in the coming years.

Innovations from the Developing World

Not all innovation starts in the West and gets exported to other parts of the world. Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, points out that developing countries have some unique characteristics that can make them more creative when looking for low-cost solutions to everyday problems. General Electric’s team in China designed a portable ultrasound that can be plugged into a laptop. Not only does this device cost significantly less than its traditional counterpart, but it is also possible to use it in remote rural areas. General Electric then took it a step further and developed a handheld ultrasound that costs less than $8,000 compared to $100,000 for a traditional ultrasound device.

The innovation is now available in the United States, signaling a new trend of health innovation coming from developing countries penetrating more developed markets.

Sources

Finn, N. How digital communication impacts health outcomes in developing nations. United Nations 58th Session of Commission on the Status of Women. Accessed from http://e-patients.net/u/2014/03/UN-presentation.4.pdf

Haenssgen M, Ariana P. The Social Implications of Technology Diffusion: Uncovering the Unintended Consequences of People’s Health-Related Mobile Phone Use in Rural India and China. World Development ,2017;94:286-304.

Josefien Van O, Guy K, François S, et al. The effect of text message support on diabetes self-management in developing countries – A randomised trial. Journal of Clinical & Translational Endocrinology, 2017; 7:33-41.

Kim S, Patel M, Hinman A. Review: Use of m-Health in polio eradication and other immunization activities in developing countries. Vaccine, 2017; 35: 1373-1379.

Marufu C, Maboe K. Full Length Articles: Utilisation of Mobile Health by medical doctors in a Zimbabwean health care facility. Health SA Gesondheid [serial online], 2017.

 

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