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Mobile technology rings on health care

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Mobile technology rings on health care (i.huffpost.com)

Mobile communication devices such as mobile phones and tablets have become an inseparable part of our daily life. In addition to the main intended task, communication, these devises can effectively be used to improve health of communities and to reduce the burden of major health issues such as maternal and child health.

Using mobile communication in health care is called mHealth, the most recent health approach preceding teleHealth and eHealth. mHealth (also written as m-health) is a term used for the practice of medicine and public health supported by mobile devices. The term is most commonly used in reference to using mobile communication devices, such as mobile phones, tablet computers and PDAs, for health services and information. mHealth applications include the use of mobile devices in collecting community and clinical health data, delivery of healthcare information to practitioners, researchers, and patients, real-time monitoring of patient vital signs, and direct provision of care.

This field largely emerges as a means of providing greater access to larger segments of a population in developing countries, as well as improving the capacity of health systems in such countries to provide quality healthcare.  mHealth projects operate with a variety of objectives, including increased access to healthcare and health-related information (particularly for hard-to-reach populations); improved ability to diagnose and track diseases; timelier, more actionable public health information; and expanded access to ongoing medical education and training for health workers.

Well functioning health care systems usually comprise effective health care delivery service such as patient treatments and preventive measures and also surveillance mechanism to monitor changes of the population health and also to assess the functions of health system itself. In health care delivery, community health care is more challenging than institutional care as health workers have a less control of the attitude and the behavior of the general public which largely depend on the factors such as educational level, literacy rate and the cultural and social beliefs.
This has been a focus in health care development programs globally. The available health education approaches have not shown expected outcomes in many settings. Small scale research as shown that more specific and sometimes personalized health information are effective in changing behavior of people and improve health of the general public. But the applicability of such an approach seems impossible in lager populations specially covering vast area. Using mobile phones has seen as a solution for this in many parts of the world.

In Nigeria, rate of immunization is considerably low and mothers do not come to the clinics due to lack of understanding of the importance and other factors such as difficulty to in access to the clinics. The small proportion those who come to clinics by walking hours are also discouraged learning that the vaccine is out of stock in their rural clinic. With an aim of finding a solution for this, group of health care workers initiated a program to send reminding text for mothers about the scheduled immunization dates. It reminds and encourages mothers to take their children to the clinics. Furthermore, they can avoid unnecessary visits as the authorities send a text when the vaccines are out of stock in a particular clinic. This has shown promising results and improved the immunization coverage in rural areas.

Similar programs in India use mobile communication to provide essential health information to pregnant women. In one particular program, women are initially registered and then they can receive daily voice messages which include pregnancy related information. The use of voice messages overcomes one of the major barriers in rural developing countries’ illiteracy. The technology helps the program offices to track how many women listen to the messages completely, how many dropped the calls and how many did not even answer.

Sri Lankan health care system has displayed remarkable achievements comparing to other countries in the region. Decreased maternal and child mortality, increased vaccination coverage and increased nutritional status among mothers and children under five years are some of the examples. But there is still a long way to go, particularly in areas like nutrition and women’s health. In addition to these existing issues, there are emerging public health challenges such as growing number of diabetes, cancers, and cardiovascular diseases.

The control and prevention of all these conditions require active involvements of general public; hence, providing information to them is vital. The existing channels, largely printed media seems to have limitations in delivering health related information. These existing approaches could be strengthened by using mHealth, the best avenue will be to use this approach in child nutrition and women’s’ health. Access to more knowledge on child nutrition and better nutritional practices via mobile devices would empowers mothers and such knowledge will help them to be immune to cultural misbelieves and media influences on child nutrition.

Further, mHelath can be used to improve, monitor and assess the health system of the country. As a pilot project, the officials could begin it from a feed-back service to the health sector authorities from the free health beneficiaries of the country.

(Dr. Lalith Senarathna is a senior lecturer attached to the Rajarata University of Sri Lanka and a senior research fellow of the South Asian Clinical Research Collaboration)

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