Health and Medical News and Resources

General interest items edited by Janice Flahiff

How Text Messages Could Change Global Healthcare

This October 24th Popular Mechanics story includes

  • How text messaging is used to coordinate health care by health care professionals in rural areas across long distances
  • How text messaging in Haiti was used to locate victims in search and rescue efforts despite language barriers
  • Camera phones as diagnostic aids
Excerpts
The notion that SMS could revolutionize healthcare first entered Nesbit’s mind in 2007, when he was still a Stanford undergrad. He’d just met Dickson Mtanga, a community health worker in rural Malawi who was walking 35 miles to deliver handwritten patient charts to the nearest hospital. Nesbit biked out to Mtanga’s village one day, only to discover that his cellphone got a better signal there than it did on Stanford’s campus in Palo Alto, Calif. All those bars of service jumped from the phone’s screen and slapped him across the face: These far-reaching GSM networks, he realized, could connect doctors and patients like never before.

Armed with a $5000 grant, a backpack full of old phones, and a laptop running a GSM modem and the open-source group-texting software called FrontlineSMS, Nesbit started working with the hospital and community health workers to coordinate patient care. The system they put in place allowed Mtanga and others to text in the information on those medical charts rather than making the hours-long trek. Patients could text their symptoms to doctors, cutting down on unnecessary visits for minor ailments and freeing up space for those in need of serious care. Within six months of the system going live, the number of patients being treated for tuberculosis doubled, more than 1200 hours in travel time were eliminated, and emergency services became available in the area for the first time. The operating costs in those six months: $500, Nesbit says

The explosion of cellphone use around the world has inspired a flood of new ideas about how to use that tech to improve healthcare. Besides Nesbit’s Medic Mobile, there are also ideas to turn camera phones into cheap diagnostic tools for vision problems or malaria, for example.

Patty Mechael, executive director of the U.N. Foundation’s mHealth Alliance, keeps tabs on these new techs. They all face major infrastructure hurdles, such as the lack of reliable energy sources to power phone chargers in some developing countries. But another, less tangible challenge is figuring out what mobile health programs are actually working and worth scaling up, and which ones aren’t. “What we have in mHealth are millions of flowers blooming, in many ways. Lots of pilots are being done throughout the world, many of which are reaching populations of a few thousand each,” Mechael says. “We’re at a tipping point where people are starting to say, ‘Okay, we need to be a bit more strategic, collaborative, cohesive.’”

Nesbit is among the voices calling for a more focused approach to mobile health. A wave of angst washes over his face when I ask if there’s too much hype surrounding mobile health, if it’s too saturated of a field. Hype is good, he says. What’s bad is hype that’s disconnected from implementation. All the media coverage and promises made about mobile health in recent years, he says, make it seem as if millions of health workers in developing nations have already integrated their phones into their daily practice. In reality, only about 20,000 have done so. Medic Mobile has SMS systems operating in 14 countries, and that number will jump to 20 in the next six months. Only a few thousand people are using Medic Mobile’s programs today, but the nonprofit just rolled out its first SIM card application, which can be used on virtually every mobile phone in existence. By 2015, Nesbit expects to have 500,000 community health workers using SMS applications to link patients with doctors.

If he hits those numbers, ubiquity really will be the killer app. 

5 Ways Your SmartPhone Can Diagnose You >>>

Read more: How Text Messages Could Be the Future of Healthcare – Popular Mechanics

November 2, 2011 - Posted by | Consumer Health, Professional Health Care Resources | , , , ,

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