Mobile health technologies go global

Government use of mobile health technologies is experiencing a rush of activity with 83 percent of the countries in the World Health Organization offering at least one type of mHealth service, according to a survey from the organization.

Of the 112 governments surveyed on mobile health in 2009, the most recent survey available, there were 100 governments that reported offering at least one application of mobile health, or mHealth. Adoption was high even among the countries with lowest incomes, with 77 percent of the less affluent countries reporting mHealth programs compared with 87 percent of high-income countries doing so.

The survey shows “a groundswell of activity,” stated the WHO report dated June 7.  Driving much of the activity is the widespread availability of cell phones, which now have several billion subscribers worldwide, the report said. However, much of the government adoption is at the pilot stage.

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“The survey results highlight that the dominant form of mHealth today is characterized by small-scale pilot projects that address single issues in information sharing and access,” the report said.

The most popular mHealth programs by countries worldwide were mobile technology call centers, cited by 59 percent; emergency services management, 54 percent; and telemedicine, 49 percent.

Use of mobile phones for conducting health surveys was the most common in low-income countries, but was among the least common globally.

The report explained that mHealth call centers, toll-free numbers and mobile communications for emergencies are the most easily incorporated into health systems because historically those systems use voice communications and are easily transferred to mobile applications. On the other hand, using mHealth for surveillance, raising public awareness or decision support systems is less common because those applications require enhanced capabilities and infrastructure.

With the exception of the call centers, toll-free numbers and emergency use, about two-thirds of all mHealth programs are in pilot stages, the report said.

These pilot programs also include appointment reminders, community mobilizations, information programs, patient monitoring and treatment compliance, and patient records.

While the countries are pursuing mHealth applications, only 12 percent of the countries said they engaged in efforts to evaluate the effectiveness of their mHealth activities, the WHO said.

WHO cited competing health system priorities as the greatest barriers to mHealth adoption.

“Health systems worldwide are under increasing pressure to perform under multiple health challenges, chronic staff shortages, and limited budgets, all of which makes choosing interventions difficult. In order to be considered among other priorities, mHealth programs require evaluation,” the report concluded.

The report was prepared with support from the mHealth Alliance, United Nations Foundation and Vodafone Foundation, among others. It was written by the WHO's Global Observatory for eHealth group.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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