mHealth for Maternal Health: Private-Sector Partnerships – Challenges and Opportunities

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By: Kelly L’Engle, Behavioral Scientist at Family Health International (FHI) 360; Nick Pearson, Founder and Executive Director at Jacaranda Health

mHealth for Maternal Health is an ongoing blog series that aims to share the knowledge and experiences of academics, implementers and funders from the mHealth and maternal health communities. As part of the series, we reached out to experts to gain insight on pressing questions around financing, partnerships, challenges and innovations in mHealth for Maternal Health.

In our previous post on financing mHealth, a key idea that emerged was that public-private partnerships are essential for scaling mHealth interventions. However, often the challenge faced by organizations in the pilot phase of an mHealth intervention appears to be identifying ideal partners to facilitate scale up, especially from within the private sector.

Private sector partners in mHealth come in many different shapes and sizes. They can include software development companies, management consulting firms, international and local non-profits, and telecommunications providers. In the field of maternal health, private health facilities and maternity homes also play an important role in the pilot and scale-up of mHealth interventions, not only providing services but also acting as a focal point for interacting with end-users, which includes patients as well as clinicians.

To gain insight into working with private sector partners to successfully implement mHealth interventions, we asked experts about their experiences with selecting partners and challenges or advantages they had experienced.

According to Kelly L’Engle, Behavioral Scientist at Family Health International (FHI) 360, private sector partners bring not only technological and business expertise to the table, but also a focus on achieving impact. She states, “One feature of working with private sector partners is the strong and ever-present focus on results, which means that both process and outcome metrics and data are essential. This challenges the public sector to be mindful of “numbers,” which can be beneficial.”

However, L’Engle adds, “Social impact is often hard to measure.” At times, the private sector’s results-driven approach conflicts with the values of the public sector – “there can be tension between the need for private sector partners to incur brand loyalty for their health offerings, and the public sector objective of better health regardless of brand or manufacturer.”

With private sector facilities providing an increasing proportion of healthcare in most developing countries, they are important partners to consider while scaling mHealth interventions targeted towards improving maternal health. However, fragmentation and variation in quality standards is typical in private sector facilities, often hampering effective partnership building.

Nick Pearson, Founder and Executive Director at Jacaranda Health explains, “The private sector in maternal healthcare is principally small private facilities (ranging from small outpatient facilities to mid-sized nursing homes and multispecialty hospitals), mission- or NGO-run facilities, or high-end facilities. They are not a cohesive sector in any way, and each is run with varying degrees of quality of care, patient-centeredness, and cost-competitiveness. With the exception of some mission or NGO-led facilities, they are run very lean, with tight cash flow constraints and little access to investment capital, which means that they tend to be conservative about adding services, staff or equipment.”

These insights highlight the importance of conducting due diligence on partners and ensuring that all stakeholders involved in scaling an intervention have complementary approaches to achieving results.

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.