Democratizing Healthcare Through Technology
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
You’ve probably read plenty about the trendiest fitness consumer gadgets, like the Fitbit, Jawbone or Apple HealthKit. But there’s a more significant healthcare revolution emerging right now at the convergence of affordable mobile tech and widespread broadband network connectivity. The mobile health revolution, widely dubbed “mHealth,” is empowering developing nations with more affordable, accurate and accessible healthcare than ever before. And it’s just the beginning.
The incredible speed of mobile phone and smartphone adoption will revolutionize health education and access to care. Mobile technology has penetrated nearly every corner of the world. Just think: There are at least 6 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide, according to the The International Telecommunication Union. That’s almost the entire global population.
This is in line with Analyst Chetan Sharma’s report that famously says people in the most underdeveloped areas are accessing mobile phones more often than basic essentials, like electricity and drinking water.
How Did Mobile Tech Start Booming in Slums?
This is a fascinating era of technology and healthcare. Just about a decade or so ago, street vendors in slums of the developing world were confined in their means of survival, owning not much more than the clothes hanging loosely on their bodies. Whether by selling crops or cycling a rickshaw, most people living in the slums of developing countries like India, South Africa and Kenya have been limited in their access to basic needs for centuries.
“In the past two years, a billion phones have been sold, almost all of them to the poorest 20 per cent of the world’s population.” – Journalist Doug Saunders.
And today many slum dwellers hold in their palms access to information and connectivity, which can boost their livelihood, health and well-being. Technologists today have an opportunity to make a true difference and flatten the world by creating products and technologies to open up healthcare access to everyone.
But why would folks living in villages save up their hard earned money for a mobile phone over basic essential items, like clean water or toothbrushes? There are quite a few reasons why cheap mobile phones, like Nokia and Motorola, specifically have their sights set on folks living below the poverty line. First, it’s a major economical investment. For slum dwellers, saving up an entire month’s salary to buy access to valuable information makes sense in the long run. For instance, in Kibera, people are actually using mobile phones to scope out the cleanest water supply. One Stanford research group traveled to the Kenyan slum and found that the community systemized safe water identification through mobile phones:
Lugaka dials *778# onto the phone’s large buttons. A few seconds later, a SMS message pops up on the phone’s small screen prompting him to press ‘1’ for water, ‘2’ to sell water or ‘3’ to file a complaint. He presses ‘1’ and a list of villages appear that have water available that day. Next to each landmark is the cost of water that day.
Plus, consider just how much cheaper phones have gotten. Here’s a graph that depicts the price drop in Indian brand smartphones, down by more than 50% in just about one year. And this doesn’t count the second-hand market, which is undoubtedly even cheaper and just as functional.
Earlier this year, Microsoft broke the record for introducing the cheapest mobile phone to the global market: The Nokia 215. At just $29, you get Internet connectivity, a camera and a battery that could last almost a month on standby. Even if people can’t access the Internet from their phones, software services like Binu use Cloud technology to deliver Internet access to ordinary mobile phones.
There’s still quite a long way to go for total network broadband connectivity in rural areas. However, here’s a bright spot: The number of fixed wireless broadband subscriptions has doubled from 472 million in 2011 to an estimated 1.16 billion in 2013, surpassing the number in developed countries. Both tech giants Google and Facebook are also working on initiatives to bring connectivity to the lesser developed nations.
mHealth Transforms Patient Care
mHealth has the power to transform health in a range of sophistication. At the basic level, info updates via SMS from health services can be monumental. Informational text services, like Text4Baby and MobileMidwife, offer pivotal advice on maternal care on a weekly basis. Just like Kiberian folks who use SMS to report clean water, Indians and Sri Lankans are using mHealth tech to speed up public health reporting of Dengue Fever, a mosquito-borne disease. This type of awareness through basic SMS services can slow down diseases.
On a slightly more advanced level of the mHealth spectrum, clear smartphone cameras are powerful medical tools. ClickMedix software, for instance, allows you to get tele-consultations by sending photos, videos or even text messages. Indian health workers who have patients suffering symptoms of deafness, for instance, can use ClickMedix’s online platform to send health data to ENT surgeons who oversee the program and confirm the diagnosis and treatment plans. Similarly, in Tanzania, mHealth startup iDoc24’s mobile app First Derm diagnoses patients in isolated rural communities…replacing the alternative 5 hour bus ride to the closest hospital.
On the most advanced end of the mHealth spectrum, smartphones–which are also dropping in prices and booming in developing countries at large—have sensors that can pick up health data from basically any physiological metric, like eye pressure and brain waves. These sensors have the capacity to manage chronic illnesses without paying a visit to your doctor.
The AliveCor heart monitor is one amazing mHealth innovation that allows you to perform routine heart check-ups. It’s an iPhone case with built-in electrosensors. All you have to do is press it against your chest and you can perform a routine heart check up. EyeNetra is another cool mHealth startup, bringing vision correction to the masses. It’s a plastic clip-on attachment for your smartphone that replaces the $10,000 auto refractor machine found in your optometrist’s office. Its on-screen visual test spits out a prescription…all for under $30.
This is Just the Beginning for mHealth
Of course, as with any ancient, government-regulated institution, innovation doesn’t come without bureaucratic hurdles. If you walk into any healthcare facility with an app idea in the US, you’ll likely get a few alarmed faces. The risks associated with losing or mixing patient data or misdiagnosis is far too high since mHealth is so new. It’s why there’s been some pushback for a centralized online database of healthcare records.
But there are indications that we’re moving forward. For instance, the FDA published a guideline document solely for developers who want to create medical mobile apps. Furthermore, the Affordable Care Act mandate incentivizes hospitals to not just treat patients but keep them healthy. Since mHealth reduces costs of office visits and equipment, global governments, hospitals and insurance companies have strong incentives to keep people healthy through mHealth preventative screening tools.
Healthcare regulations mean innovation may take longer to become completely ubiquitous, but the possibilities are worth maneuvering the red tape. As federal governments start standardizing the development of mHealth tools, more developers will collaborate with doctors to create self-diagnostic tools.
This article only touches on a few aspects of mHealth’s boundless potential in making the world flatter and healthier. For a more holistic picture of the future medical model, take a look at this fascinating chart recently Tweeted by Eric Topol, author of The Patient Will See You Now.
We’re at the verge of a movement that’s shedding away old medicine practices that heavily rely on institutionalized health management. If mHealth continues to proliferate at this rate, medical treatment will become incredibly convenient and efficient. Already, we’re seeing the clever ways that underdeveloped nations are leveraging mobile tech to benefit their well-being. Eventually, everyone in the world will have the capabilities to perform preventative care from the palms of their hands, saving cost, time and–above all–lives.