How mHealth is Revolutionising Healthcare in Impoverished Areas

There are not enough healthcare workers to support our communities.

We need to think differently about how to create a healthcare system of the future and revolutionize the way we conceive of healthcare. By 2035, the shortage of healthcare workers worldwide will climb to approximately 12.9 million across all sectors. This will put even more pressure on healthcare systems and infrastructures that are already strained in vulnerable communities. Preventable or manageable conditions and diseases will burden the systems. In natural disasters and other emergencies like disease outbreaks, the healthcare infrastructures in place will not be enough if there are too few qualified professionals to help. Healthcare workers will become more and more difficult to recruit and retain, especially in poor and rural areas.

The Rise of the Pocket Doctor

We have all paid Dr. Google a visit, and I can almost guarantee everyone reading this article has looked up symptoms online to assess whether they need to seek help from a healthcare professional. Most of the world’s population however low-income countries , still do not have access to a computer or a reliable internet connection; they do however have access to cell phones. In fact, more than three-quarters of the world’s 5.3 billion mobile phones are located in the low-income countries.

Mobile Health, or mHealth is a growing movement in the healthcare industry. Some are even regarding mHealth services as the, “best tools for curing diseases and improving health condition[s].” mHealth providers use mobile devices to support health initiatives and healthcare systems. mHealth is already revolutionizing the way people think about and access healthcare services — but those who could benefit the most from this new wave of healthcare technology are individuals and communities in the majority world with poor access to healthcare services and poor healthcare infrastructure.

The mHealth Alliance claims, in ‘low-income countries, the average doctor to patient ratio is 1 doctor for every 250,000 patients.As smartphone use becomes more widespread, mHealth is now seen as an essential part of healthcare in the majority world, both in responding to healthcare emergencies like outbreaks, and managing general public health concerns.

mHealth in Disease Management & Prevention

mHealth advocates are already creating advanced technologies accessible through mobile devices that could benefit developing areas, from mobile eye exams, medical record keeping, smartphone microscopes, delivery of clinical protocols, diagnostic tools, epidemic contact-tracing apps, epidemic reporting apps, emergency services reporting, to ultrasound devices!

One of the most pertinent potential benefits of incorporating mHealth in the majority world is the ability for both patients and healthcare professionals to easily access information, seek advice, make appointments, and access test results. These features will lend themselves to assisting in managing chronic disease more effectively and improving quality of life for those with chronic illness. mHealth interventions can the reduce costs of accessing health care, extend the reach of healthcare providers, create increased interaction between patients and doctors, and make it easier and as faster to send and receive quality healthcare information.

A more connected world means we have a greater ability to collect good data, disseminate better policies and strategies, monitor behaviors, and manage infectious disease outbreaks. It also means we can communicate over large geographical areas important information about natural disasters that could save countless lives and reduce the effects of widespread health emergencies. In cases of disaster, these devices can also be used to coordinate relief efforts, delegate resources, conduct damage audits, and direct survivors to safe areas for assistance.

Opportunities for mHealth Evolution

Despite the potential benefits of mHealth, its adoption remains a big challenge in the parts of the world that could benefit from it most. Much of the technology being developed that could help these vulnerable populations is not designed in the majority world — this means that applications run the risk of not taking into account the realities of these cultures, rural settings and environments. The realities of these areas must be taken into account when creating these technologies or they will fail to get to those who need them.

The poorest individuals in any society are also those who tend to bear the greatest burden of disease. One of the main challenges mHealth advocates face is barriers that exist to sophisticated technologies like smartphones. We do not yet live in a world where the majority can afford a smartphone. The World Bank estimates there were still 700 million people living on less than $2 per day in 2015. Even if we could get the cost of a smartphone down to $4, for many people, purchasing a smart phone would still not be a priority. Furthermore, the parts of the world with the poorest healthcare infrastructures also tend to be the places with the lowest literacy rates.

This means that useful mHealth systems must, at least for the moment, either a) not depend on the user being able to read and write or; b) not depend on devices and networks that use apps and data. It would be worth investigating the possibilities of pairing microfinance with mHealth delivery in order to ease financial pressure on individuals and allow these systems to flourish. To realize its fullest potential mHealth has to overcome these problems of access to allow those people who need it most too actively participate in their own healthcare.

Changing health culture with mHealth

In the hands of trained healthcare providers, mobile devices allow people living in rural or remote areas of the world to access quality healthcare information and testing for a fraction of the cost it would otherwise take if they had to travel to place-based healthcare facilities in big cities. When we remove financial and geographical obstacles from healthcare and normalize regular physician contact and monitoring, we facilitate better health outcomes by changing the healthcare culture and health-seeking behaviors.

mHealth has the potential to change the way we treat individuals and to help us build accessible, holistic healthcare systems in every corner of the world. It is imperative to remember that holistic healthcare delivery means we have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to take into account the broader social environments that bring individuals to require medical assistance in the first place. If we can change the way we innovate to incorporate the realities of the majority world, mHealth could be just what the doctor ordered.