On 27 October 2010, the Wilson Center Maternal Health Initiative convened this dialogue, in partnership with the Maternal Health Task Force (MHTF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

With rising use in the developing world, cell phones and mobile technologies can create “connected and coordinated health systems that save more lives,” said Josh Nesbit, executive director of FrontlineSMS: Medic. Capitalizing on these new technologies could increase efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and efficacy of public health programs. Nesbit was joined by Alain Labrique, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and David Aylward, executive director of the mHealth Alliance at the United Nations Foundation, this panel discussed the role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in the prevention of maternal mortality.

Collaborations for mHealth

While “cell phones can’t save lives, the lack of information does kill,” said Aylward. Using technology that many people already own and use, mobile technology is an appropriate tool for disseminating health data and information. Existing technologies such as mobile phones and SMS text messaging can revolutionize healthcare by improving data collection and disease tracking, expanding patient diagnostics, and advancing education and awareness among health workers and patients.

With 64 percent of all mobile phone users in the developing world, the use of mobile devices to improve health services in low-income countries is especially promising.

Aylward hopes that mobile health technology (mHealth) will help combat maternal mortality in the developing world. With approximately 350,000 women dying in childbirth each year, and only marginal progresses towards achieving Millennium Development Goal 5, finding such innovative solutions to improve maternal health is crucial.

Building a strong mHealth system that ensures access for all can not only help reduce maternal mortality, but is a “way to empower women, one of the best things to do for these communities and build stronger health systems,” said Aylward.

Public-private partnerships are particularly important when considering the long-term sustainability of mHealth programs. “This didn’t happen because of the World Bank, it happened because people who are very poor voted with their very limited funds to have access to information,” said Aylward.

“In the last year, we have seen a coming together of pieces of the donor community to get a common front, common standards, and common architecture; but, up until now, we’ve seen just the opposite,” said Aylward. Aylward is hopeful that government and donor support will continue to become more supportive of mobile technology and coordinated in their implementation of mHealth programs globally.

Mobile Health Solutions in the Developing World

“Through mobile tools, we can act as quickly as possible to improve access to skilled birth attendants, emergency obstetric care, and access to reproductive health commodities,” said Nesbit.

Nesbit’s organization, FrontlineSMS: Medic, is successfully working to eliminate barriers created by the lack of resources and infrastructure in the developing world using mobile health technology. Now working in 20 countries, the organization uses free software “that enables large-scale, two-way text messaging using only a laptop, a GSM modem, and inexpensive cell phones,” explained Nesbit.

“One of the best measures is whether people continue to use your tools, and they will if it impacts their lives positively and they won’t if it doesn’t—sometimes it’s as simple as that,” said Nesbit on why communities in the developing world are eagerly embracing mobile technology.

Moving forward, Nesbit hopes to “scale and replicate, both vertically and horizontally, models that we’ve shown can work, but also to build new tools” and work with the health community “to help identify the needs and the gaps in these systems.”

However, Nesbit stresses that “these are very much tools and not solutions; they become solutions when they are paired with people on the ground who use them.”

Compressing the Time Between Crisis and Care

“The opportunities for mobile phones to act synergistically with existing health systems in low- to middle-income countries are many,” said Labrique. The current challenge is to harness this technology to improve health outcomes in the developing world, where disease burden is disproportionately high.

In the developing world, “decisions influenced by the lack of resources, such as poverty, or lack of information have led to highly convoluted patterns of care-seeking,” said Labrique.

“Delayed decision-making compounded by delayed transport can have tragic consequences for maternal mortality,” said Labrique, and the most immediate use of mobile technology is “getting the necessary care, on time, to where these deaths are taking place.” Cell phones can help women, their families, and local health workers to seek timely, appropriate medical help for an obstetric emergency.

“Addressing equity and access to phones when evaluating the impact or success of mHealth interventions is critical,” Labrique said. Although cell phone use is high and steadily increasing, social and cultural norms in some countries might prevent women from using them. Further, Labrique notes, in Bangladesh, cell phone use among the poorest families is noticeably less than those with higher socioeconomic status.

“ICT and mHealth solutions have tremendous promise to improve maternal health in resource limited settings; however, it’s important not to let the technology guide the public health agenda,” said Labrique. More data is needed to determine how these tools might strengthen and enhance health systems and a clearer research agenda can help ensure evidence-based solutions guide programming.

See a video of the event>>


Moderated by

  • Tim Thomas
    Senior Advisor, Maternal Health Task Force