mHealth for Maternal Health: What’s New, What’s Missing and Where Are We Headed?

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By: Marc Mitchell, Founder and President of D-TREE International and lecturer on global health at the Harvard School of Public Health

The Maternal Health Task Force is excited to announce the launch of its new blog series and topics page on mHealth for Maternal Health to share the knowledge and experiences of academics, implementers and funders across the mHealth and maternal health communities. Blog posts will explore topics such as financing, partnerships, challenges and innovations in mHealth for Maternal Health to highlight evidence gaps and identify opportunities for collaboration.

Ten years ago mHealth wasn’t a word. Today it seems to be all you hear about. What happened?

What happened is phones. Millions of them. Billions of them. This year, it is projected that there will be more cell phones in the world than people. And I don’t mean dead cell phones – I am referring to cell phones in use.

But mHealth isn’t just phones. It is also what the phones do. Or, more correctly, have the potential to do. Cell phones have the potential to make health care personal and accessible, improve quality, reduce cost, and give everyone, no matter who they are or where they live, access to good health care.  So, in the past 10 years, the global health community has gone from mSkeptics to mSupporters, but generally with very little understanding of what exactly they are mBracing.

One of the problems is that the field of mHealth is changing very quickly- things that are routine today were impossible only 5 years ago. This is a problem for researchers since good research often takes 5 years or longer from design to funding to implementation to publication. By the time we “prove” something, it is already out of date. In response, the mHealth community mostly doesn’t rely on research to publicize its work. They use websites, webinars and e-reports to quickly get the word out about what they are doing and how great it is. Not exactly proof-of-concept. Perhaps not proof of anything.  So how do we know what we know and how do we differentiate powerful solutions from well-designed hype?

In April, the Maternal Health Task Force at Harvard School of Public Health is holding a high level technical meeting entitled mHealth for Maternal Health: bridging the gaps, to raise the level of understanding of what mHealth is, its demonstrated and potential ability to improve maternal health, and ensure that future investments in mHealth are based on evidence, rather than hype. This meeting will bring academics, implementers, funders, and governmental decision-makers together to look at what we know, and identify what we need to know to make better decisions about using mHealth applications and strategies to advance the maternal health agenda in a timely way, so it isn’t out-of-date before it is used.

This meeting is part of an ongoing process to identify, categorize and grade evidence of effectiveness of mHealth, led by the World Health Organization. More information on the WHO mHealth Technical and Evidence Review Group (mTERG) for reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health can be found here. Others, including the Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are contributing to this effort so that evidence-based programs can lead to universal access to high quality health care for everyone.

The MHTF’s newest topic page on mHealth for Maternal Health serves as a hub for information related to this meeting, and aims to curate the knowledge base at the intersection of mHealth and maternal health including key papers, toolkits and resources. To recommend a resource, please contact us.

Do you have an opinion on the role mHealth can play to improve maternal health? What do you see as the biggest advantages of mHealth? The limitations? If you are interested in submitting a blog post for our ongoing guest blog series on mHealth for Maternal Health, please email MHTF Research Assistant Yogeeta Manglani at