Day 1 at the mHealth Summit: Ideas, Challenges, Opportunities

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By: Raji Mohanam,

The three-day mHealth Summit began today in Washington DC, with over 2,000 experts from both public and private sectors coming together to discuss how innovative mobile technologies are being used to improve health and health systems around the world.

To give you some context as to why those of us working in maternal health (or any global public health field for that matter) should care about mHealth, here are some stunning facts:

  • There are 5 billion cell phone subscribers on the planet
  • 70% of these subscriptions are in the developing world
  • Today, almost 90 percent of the world’s population has access to a wireless telephone signal
  • About three quarters of mobile phone users have texting capability and features such as GPS that can pinpoint their location
  • By 2015, about 60 percent of mobile phones are expected to be web-enabled

The conference opened with remarks from David Aylward, Executive Director of the mHealth Alliance. He pointed out that the only way forward for real growth and scale-up in mHealth is if a culture of collaboration was fostered across sectors. Only through a multisectoral approach and through public-private partnerships can we expect the next phase of growth to be achieved by the thousands of mHealth pilot projects currently being conducted around the world. No one entity, organization, government, or sector can succeed alone. He also made a number of key announcements about the mHealth Alliance:

  • GSM Association has become a mHealth Alliance partner
  • HUB (Health UnBound) is now launched – – to facilitate global knowledge-sharing in mHealth.
  • HP has made a $1 million commitment to the mHealth Alliance. The donation will support HUB and their Maternal mHealth Initiative (MMI).

Keynote speaker Dr. Francis S. Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, highlighted a number of innovations happening in mHealth:

  • A technology used during the Gulf oil spill in the form of a wearable mobile phone device with a chemical sensor system can be used to assess exposure to and track harmful hydrocarbons in the air.
  • A lens-free microscope called LUCAS attached to a mobile phone can be used for surveillance and diagnosis of infectious diseases in resource-limited settings.
  • A real-time adherence monitoring device using mobile phones is used for HIV antiretroviral therapy in Uganda. Every time a pill box is opened, it sends a signal through a mobile phone that the pill box was opened and taken.

He also announced that this summer, NIH will launch an institute on mobile technology research to enhance health. There will be 25 applicants selected for this five day workshop.

The last Keynote Speaker, Todd Park, Chief Technology Officer, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services highlighted the launch earlier this year of Text4Baby in the U.S. This is a free SMS information service for pregnant women and new mothers that delivers data about things like immunizations, pregnancy diet/nutrition, and appointment reminders. Text4Baby has become largest mobile health program in US, with an enrollment of over 100,000 women.

After a day of listening to these and other fascinating speakers, I realized that there were three words that seemed to keep coming up: “ideas”, “challenges”, and “opportunities”. They are all plentiful in the quickly evolving mHealth ecosystem, which means that we need to understand them well if mobile phones are to achieve their full potential to improve lives. Ideas (great ones) for mHealth abound. Many of these ideas are already being implemented in pilot programs around the world. Take a look at these examples: Voxiva, Mobisante, ZMQ, and Frontline SMS: Medic just to name a few. Challenges abound too. Despite what many mHealth enthusiasts believe, mobile technology is not a panacea. There are still many unanswered questions, including: which ideas will really work in the long-run and which are cost-effective? Where is the data and evidence to support scaling these projects up? What happens when batteries die out or connectivity fails in the middle of a data gathering project? All these questions and more need further investigation. The good news is that everyone here is alluding to myriad opportunities to collaborate to find out these answers, together. These opportunities are what I look forward to hearing more about this week.

You can follow the mHealth conference online and watch a webcast of the conference proceedings on the mHealth Summit’s website. Follow on Twitter using the hashtag #mHS10.