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Reflections from the 2012 mHealth Summit for Smarter Public Health

Jan 3rd, 2013Health, International, Opinion, Tech

Guest post by Nick Martin, CEO of TechChange, a social enterprise developing technology education for development and social impact. 

Four thousand attendees. Three days. Three challenges. One global network solution.

The 2012 mHealth Summit brought three main challenges to address in the next year to push forward with mobile phones for public health:

Beyond pilots; scale. The relative novelty of mhealth as a field has encouraged a “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach to see what sticks. But this culture of innovation has not kept pace with the fast development of the field as a whole, and thus the legacy of isolated small-scale pilots has continued instead of learning from what has been done before.   In Uganda alone there were 23 mHealth initiatives in 2008 and 2009 that did not scale up after the pilot phase. In India, there were over 30 mHealth initiatives in 2009 that did not go beyond the pilot phase. A number of recommendations were made to avoid “pilotisis” as it was deemed, including: improving monitoring and evaluation of these projects and basing all tech interventions in local contexts, needs and realities.

For more recommendations on how to scale mHealth projects effectively, check out this report published last year by the Advanced Development for Africa (ADA).

Interoperability first. The entire value of SMS and feature-based mHealth initiative is that the loss of functionality (say from using a smartphone) is more than counterbalanced by the size of the potential intervention — almost everyone has access to a dumbphone, even in the poorest areas that most benefit from mhealth initiatives. As such, standardization has the power to greatly enhance the efficiency of a health system.  In a number of countries, record keeping processes are so redundant and conflicting that the bureaucratic burden for users increases significantly.  (Watch a short animation about interoperability and tech standards). Government decision-makers have a significant role to play in aligning on standards and making health systems more efficient but funders and and other actors must also contribute meaningfully to this process.

Content and partners. The barriers to uptake of mHealth programming are rarely technical anymore. Too many affordable solutions exist for most needs and programs that have employed them effectively to imitate. What has been a barrier is distilling those lessons into effective training content and then forming partnerships to implement effectively. A number of new efforts are also underway to produce useful content for training and programmatic purposes. iHeed, an Irish Social Enterprise, believes that one million community health workers will be needed in coming years to provide quality health services to underserved populations. They are working on global health worker training by producing next-generation digital animated training content, and developing new blended training programs for health workers using mobile technology. mPowering Frontline Health Workers is another project aimed at providing training content and support to health workers.

Some of the organizations and projects I am most excited about include: Medic Mobile – a group that uses free and open source software to boost immunization rates by more than 20%, to contain disease outbreaks, and to make drug stock reporting 4x cheaper and 134x faster. Mwana – a project developed by UNICEF to use mobile phones to improve early infant diagnosis of HIV and post-natal follow-up and care. Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) a joint effort between USAID, UN foundation, Baby Center, and Johnson & Johnson which delivers vital health information to new and expectant mothers through mobile phones in a number of countries including Bangladesh, Ghana and South Africa.

The mHealth Summit was incredibly useful, but it’s not enough to meet once a year.
We need a global online community of practice. That’s why TechChange and the mHealth Alliance teamed up to build the first-ever online course on mHealth to bring people together, share best practices, and deepen their learning. Over the course of four weeks 100 participants from 25 countries engaged directly with experts via live video streaming, explored self-paced exercises and animations (See an example here), took part in software simulations and more. At the summit, we filmed a variety of experts sharing lessons learned to share with our course participants and the general public as immediately as if they had attended the summit (see interviews here).

 

(Photo Courtesy of TechChange features Nick Martin at the 2012 mHealth summit in Washington, DC)

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