The unprecedented spread of mobile technologies as well as advancements in their innovative application to address health priorities has evolved into a new field of eHealth, known as mHealth.
mHealth or mobile health is the medical and public health practice supported by mobile devices, such as mobile phones, patient monitoring devices, personal digital assistants (PDAs), and other wireless devices.
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According to the International Telecommunication Union there are now close to 5 billion mobile phone subscriptions in the world, with over 85% of the world’s population now covered by a commercial wireless signal.
With increased accessibility comes the possibility of greater personalisation and citizen-focused public health and medical care. Take a look at the impact of mhealth technology on healthcare below.
Health Call Centres
There has been a growing interest in capitalising on the ubiquity of mobile technology infrastructure to develop health call centres that can increase accessibility of health advice and information to patients and the public. This approach has been found to overcome widespread health system barriers such as health professional shortages, reliance on untrained and/or informal providers, cost of service and transportation, and lack of sources of reliable information.
A preference for sending SMS for treatment compliance programmes to patients, with the aim of achieving treatment compliance, disease eradication, and overcoming challenges such as drug resistance, has been observed across the globe. The enormous popularity of SMS as a method of communicating by mobile phone is not surprising. It is inexpensive or without cost, is a succinct way of sending a message without the need to talk, and offers a record of messages sent and received.
Appointment reminders are voice or SMS messages sent to patients to schedule or attend an appointment. Missed appointments have a financial and operational cost, especially in health systems with strained capacity. In low and lower-middle income countries, where access to fixed-line telephony is minimal and in high-income countries where fixed line telephony is being replaced with mobile phones, the mobile phone is rapidly becoming the primary means of receiving appointment reminders.
Community Mobilisation & Health Promotion
Mobile phones are providing a new communication channel for health promotion and community mobilisation. Text messaging is being used for health promotion or to alert target groups of health campaigns, for example, to increase participation in immunisation campaigns or to promote voluntary counselling and HIV screening.
Health information via mobile phones is especially useful for diseases such as HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, which are highly stigmatised. Raising public awareness through health information products, games, or quiz programmes to educate people on health topics has shown promising results. These programmes are often available for download onto the mobile phone or as a series of text messages that tell a story with embedded health messages.
Human resource shortages in the health sector pose a major barrier to a patient’s access to treatment and/or specialised care in developing countries. Mobile technologies present an opportunity to circumvent this challenge by connecting patients, community health workers and physicians in urban and rural areas to improve quality of care at the point of care and reduce unnecessary referrals.
Public Health Emergencies
The use of mobile phones in emergency contexts, to respond to and manage disaster situations such as natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and conflicts, has been shown to improve access to transportation and emergency coordination outside of a formal EMRS. This system was initially used by aid agencies for rescue operations and later to identify needs and provide services.
In the context of mHealth, patient monitoring is using technology to manage, monitor, and treat a patient’s illness from a distance (e.g. diabetes and cardiac patients). Remote sensors installed in households or imaging devices linked to mobile phones are often used to facilitate data transmission to the health service provider. This can reduce the need for visits to a health centre for check-ups.
Decision Support Systems
These are the software algorithms that advise health providers on clinical diagnoses of patients based on the interaction of patient data and medical information, such as prescribed drugs. Mobile devices are widely used to input patient data and receive targeted health information.
“In an era of disruptive innovation and intensifying competition, coming late to market with marginally superior offerings isn’t good enough. Any health care organisation that wants to thrive must dominate the market before its rivals do and demonstrate that it’s the best.” – IBM
The global mobile health solutions market is said to tally $59.2 billion by 2020, according to a projection from research firm MarketsandMarkets. The report cited the “increasing penetration of smart phones, tablets and other mobile platforms” and the expectation by patients to use them for their health care needs as a leading factor behind the market boom.