How Cell Phones, Mobile Devices, iPhones Save Lives in Poor Countries

VIDEO: Service works on low cost phones to increase data collection in poor areas.
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ABC News' correspondent Dana Hughes reports from the Mobile Health Summit in Cape Town, South Africa.

More than 5 billion people in the world today have cell phones, and they are doing a lot more than just talking. Globally, people are using mobile phones to surf the web, telecommute and, increasingly in the developing world, send and receive money.

The next revolution will not be televised, technology experts say, but be driven by devices that fit into the palm of your hand.

Part of that revolution is using mobile technology to deliver and track health care services, a practice referred to as mhealth. While people in the United States and Europe are focused on how the latest iPhone app will make their lives easier, wireless technology is literally saving lives in poor countries such as those in Africa and Asia.

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A new WHO report, "mHealth: New Horizons for Health through Mobile Technologies," focuses on the impact mobile devices and the Internet are having on global access to health care. The report, launched at the Mobile Health Summit held in Cape Town, South Africa. this week, finds that more than 70 percent of mobile subscribers live in low- and middle-income countries.

It also says that commercial wireless signals cover more than 85 percent of the world. Places that might have no electricity or a safe water supply could easily have cellphone coverage. But having seemingly high-tech advancement in places lacking basic infrastructure isn't only a problem; it's also an opportunity.

"Things that are being learned in Africa can be used in other parts of the world, including the United States," said Adele Waugaman, senior director of Technology Partnerships for the United Nations Foundation, which supported the WHO study.

The U.N. Foundation and telecommunication giant Vodacom have been partnering for the past five years to try and fund innovative mhealth projects. One of their most successful is DataDyne, a company founded by Dr. Joel Selanikio of the United States. Selanikio started his career in IT, went to medical school and eventually specialized in global health with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

His frustration working in Africa, where health policy decisions were being made based on often slow and outdated data, led him to create EpiSurveyor, a mobile application using the Web that allows community health workers in even the most remote parts of the world to record and report health information almost instantaneously.

"We have a system online where anybody can go to the Website and in five minutes create a form and share it with mobile phones around the world, and have those mobile phones be sending information back by a simple text message," Selanikio said ABC News.

He acknowledged that not all global health problems will be fixed using technology but said, "We can fix one problem, which is the data collection part. We can nail that one down, and that's what we've done with EpiSurveyor."

Mobenzi, a South African-based mhealth company, focuses on both data collection and patient care. Their mobile app allows health workers to schedule appointments, pull up a patient's file and even send photos to a specialist online who can help with a diagnosis.

"It takes off a lot of the pressure on the traditional health facilities," Andi Friedman, one of Mobenzi's partners, said. "It allows us to extend the level of care we can provide in the field. The mobilization of this really sophisticated capability is really the point here."

Companies, Governments and Health Care Pros Come Together

At the Mobile Summit, health care professionals, humanitarian groups, mobile network operators and government representatives also discussed some of the challenges with mhealth. For example many programs are still in the pilot stages, governments have yet to regulate issues such as patient confidentiality and liability, and network operators and other telecommunications industry groups want mhealth to develop an eco-system that will be a financially sustainable business model.

No one expects to get rich but the general consensus was that if mhealth is based solely on philanthropic funding, the innovation will not survive.

Craig Friderichs works with the mobile health initiative for GSMA, a global trade organization for the world's largest GSM network operators including Vodacom, AT&T and Orange. GSMA and the Mobile Health Alliance sponsored the summit precisely to get groups and individuals working in mhealth to address those challenges, as well as share successes.

"We can really transmit or help patients at the bottom of the pyramid in the poorest communities, in the most under-serviced communities, with the most basic phones and connectivity," Friderichs said. "And we believe that the reach or the penetration of mobile into these underserviced communities and the ubiquity that mobile is bringing to these communities has the potential to literally revolutionize the way we deliver health care services."