17th January, 2011
Mobile phone manufacturers, networks and software developers have joined forces with the United Nations to place the mobiles at the heart of a multi-millionÂ pound drive to tackle HIV/AIDS, malaria and deaths during childbirth.
Yusuf Ibrahim’s computer screen is awash with colourful maps and charts. From his desk in downtown Nairobi, Ibrahim can track outbreaks of deadly diseasesÂ and keep on eye on the progress of potentially tricky pregnancies.
“With the touch of a button I can see what’s going on across the country in real-time,” Ibrahim said. “It is amazing.”
Ibrahim’s computer is collecting vital health and epidemiological data from hundreds of miles away via travelling healthworkers with mobile phones.
“It used to take days, weeks or even a couple of months to find out about an outbreak of Polio on the other side of the country. Now we know almostÂ instantly. The speed with which we can now collect information has catapulted healthcare and prevention to another level,” he said. “It has completely changeÂ healthcare and saved countless lives.”
Ibrahim says Kenya’s mobile phone data collection system, which has been rolled out to six other African countries, is “probably better than what they’ve gotÂ in the West”.
“Although we are a Third World country, I’m pretty sure we’ve done this before Western countries. While they [Western countries] are still collectingÂ information in hard copy on clipboards, we are getting it instantly.”
Kenya’s Data Dyne system is just one example of hundreds of innovative mobile phone-based projects that are helping to improve healthcare in Africa. Today’sÂ mobiles are filled with so much state-of-the-art technology they are being used as walking, talking field hospitals.
Kathy Calvin, chief executive of the United Nations Foundation (UNF), said mobiles have the potential to have as big an impact on global healthcare as Sir Alexander Fleming’s 1928 discovery of penicillin.
“Mobile technology is the answer to a huge, huge problem,” she says. “The impact [of mobile phones in Africa] has been huge so far, and will become biggerÂ still in the long term.”
Calvin says the UNF is transforming its approach to international development to place increasing emphasis on the mobile. “For decades delivering healthcareÂ in rural settings has been inefficient and slow. If you run out of drugs or condoms or there is an outbreak of disease the only way to communicate theÂ problem is to write it down, probably illegibly, on a bit of paper,” she says. “It was crying out for a modern solution.”
The solution is the mobile. As their price falls below $10, mobiles are becoming increasingly popular in Africa and the number of handsets has increasedÂ fivefold in the past five years. “Instead of building clinics and roads to remote towns and villages so that people can access healthcare, we are bringÂ healthcare directly to the people via mobile phones. You get a lot more healthcare for your money,” Calvin said.
The UNF, which has teamed up with the Vodafone Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, is planning to exploit the vast technological capabilities of theÂ latest generation of smartphones, such as the iPhone and Google Android-powered devices, to monitor and deliver healthcare in the field without doctors orÂ even nurses.
While the philanthropic approach to tackling Africa’s problems has produced good results, Calvin is calling for a public-private alliance to drive today’sÂ pilots into tomorrow’s standard practices. “Philanthropy cannot be the sole answer here. Manufacturers and mobile networks are working together to developÂ products and solutions that will require significant dollars of investment,” she said.
Telefonica, the Spanish telecoms giant that owns the O2 mobile network, has singled out healthcare as its next growth area, with hundreds of millions ofÂ euros investment and the creation of a dedicated eHealth unit.
“We are going to invest heavily into heavily into this sector,” said Ãlvaro FernÃ¡ndez de Araoz, Telefonica’s director of corporate eHealth. “We have made aÂ bet on health and we have already poured tens of millions of euros into this.”
US technology giant Qualcomm has developed technology that can be used to measure a patient’s heart rate, breathing rate, posture, temperature and otherÂ vital signs to provide a patient’s full health check thousands of miles from a doctor. “This is useful for the worried well in the West, but trulyÂ revolutionary for developing countries,” says Clint McClellan, Qualcomm’s strategic director. “People who have never seen a doctor can be assessed remotelyÂ to pick up the warning signs of diseases, which would previously have gone unnoticed.
“It is not science fiction any more. The possibilities are almost infinite. Almost everything you’ve seen in Star Wars or James Bond can probably, actually,Â be done.”
Using a mobile phone to diagnose diseases
â€¢Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has developed a cheap clip-on gadget to diagnose eye conditions by playing computer game type simulations onÂ the phone’s screen while rotating through a batch of different lenses. There is also an application to turn an iPhone into a stethoscope.
â€¢A US university professor is developing technology to turn the mobile into a field hospital by transforming phones into microscopes to test forÂ blood-borne diseases such as malaria. The Cellophone, developed by Professor Aydogan Ozcan of the University of California, could be transformational forÂ Africa because it replaces expensive lenses with computer code. Blood or urine samples can be loaded into the device like a memory stick and examined via theÂ inbuilt camera.
â€¢Qualcomm has developed technology to help diabetics monitor their blood glucose levels without having to visit a clinic or hospital. Instead the patientÂ places two tiny metal strips that detect blood sugar levels under the skin, before feeding the information to a device which automatically sends theÂ information to a doctor and alerts both the patient and the clinic of any worrying change.