Importance of mobile telephony for developing countries' healthcare programs

Mobile telephony has spread very rapidly in developing countries, one reason being their seriously deficient fixed line systems.According to the International Telecommunications Union there are some 5 billion wireless subscribers in the world today and over 70% of these reside in low and middle income countries. In 2011, Africa held its first mobile health summit in South Africa and firmly put mobile telephony at the centre of improving healthcare in poor countries. A 2011 WHO global survey of the use of mobile telephony in healthcare; mHealth, reported that commercial wireless signals cover over 85% of the world’s population. Eighty three per cent of the 122 countries surveyed in the Report used mobile phones for free emergency calls, text messaging and pill reminders.

Mobiles can be useful in a number of ways: farmers, for instance, are able to get information about the prices for their products (so they can sell them at the right moment at the right price). For health it has been used to deliver information to pregnant women, to enable local health providers to ask questions about particular cases to central facilities, to track and monitor treatment.

Kenya is beginning to exploit its mobile telephone infrastructure to send and receive health information to educate girls and women about labour, contraception and birth. Kenyan women are monitored during their pregnancy via their mobile phones. They receive regular calls from an automated system, which asks them questions to monitor their health condition in order to check that they do not have antenatal complications. The aim of the project is to extend this mobile screening and triage service to those hard-to-reach patients in rural areas.

One of Zambia’s biggest successes has been the liberalisation of its telecommunications infrastructure. Today there are over 8.2 million mobile telephone subscribers in Zambia, which has a population of some 13.8 million. This suggests Zambia might consider exploiting its mobile telephony network to provide a cost effective and scalable means to educate girls and women about contraception, labour and child birth.

Mobile telephony has become an important vehicle for improving the quality of understanding of health issues and of tailoring treatment for individuals.