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Can mobiles heal Africa?

Clever use of mobile technology may be key to cracking Africa’s healthcare problems, say experts.

Mobile phones could play a major part in improving healthcare in the world’s poorest countries, Africa's first mobile health summit heard yesterday in Cape Town.

The talks came as the World Health Organisation put out its mHealth report on the global use of mobile phone technology in healthcare.

There is a “fairly healthy groundswell of activity” in mobile-health initiatives, said the United Nations’ Misha Kay, working for the World Health Organisation (WHO).

About 40 African countries are using mobile health services, said Kay, adding that bigger countries with several mobile operators – such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya – are leading the way. "The momentum is huge. What is happening is important. Millions of people in Africa still do not have access to any healthcare. With mobile technology they can at least have some," he said.

There are more than five billion mobile phone subscribers in the world, according to the report and 85 per cent of the planet is covered by a commercial wireless signal. The WHO found that only 19 of 114 countries had no mobile health initiatives. In fact, Kay said, most countries were running several projects aimed at supporting health care provision. The most common schemes worldwide range from helplines, free emergency calls, appointment reminders and mobile telemedicine, where doctors in different locations consult one another over the phone.

But in Africa, ‘mHealth’ is being used in far smarter ways. Jane Mgone from the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO),  highlighted a project in Tanzania, where the cost of getting to healthcare centres stopped many patients from seeking treatment. But now an aid organisation uses M-Pesa, the mobile-based money transfer system, to send money to patients to help cover travel costs.

"Someone who is ill often cannot travel, but now we can reach them,” said Chris Ross, from British-South African Vodacom company. “Doctors, who are in short supply in Africa, can give mobile health workers all the information they require to run community health clinics.’

But mobile phones wouldn’t be a one-stop solution for poor countries healthcare problems, the conference heard. As well as issues such as regulation, the WHO survey found that cost, a lack of knowledge, and health policies that did not recognise mHealth as a valid strategy could act as barriers.

Hayley attribution