mHealth – will the Developing World get there first?

Today has been a good day for mHealth.  At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, both the GSM Association and the combined UN and Vodafone Foundations have made major commitments to the development and support of mHealth.  For those unfamiliar with the word, mHealth is the use of a mobile phone to deliver healthcare.

The White Paper that the GSM Association has produced in conjunction with its announcement explains it well – it’s all about “The Doctor in your Pocket”.  It surveys four countries that already have established remote healthcare schemes – a mix of both private and government initiatives, and concludes that not only does it work, but that it has the potential to bring significant improvements to the lives of people who have the greatest difficulty in accessing healthcare provision.

None of the four examples of successful mHealth come from the First World.  They’re from Mexico, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.  Which raises the question of whether Western nations need to learn from them?  Instead of concentrating on high tech, product led initiatives, it begs the question of whether we should just accept the fact that mHealth offers real benefits and get down and do it.

Throughout the twentieth century most technology forecasters, before they threw away their ties and jackets and renamed themselves futurologists, believed that change would come from rapid development of existing technologies.  In most cases they got it wrong.  Whilst computers followed Moore’s law and brought us desktop PCs, the Internet and smartphones, most mass market technologies reached critical mass and then stagnated.  Planes didn’t get faster.  Nor did cars.  TVs never got to 3D.  And we’re still not living on the moon and Mars.

Despite all of the innovation in medical science, it’s nutrition, hygiene and antibiotics that have done most to land us in the current demographic quagmire that acts the part of the ugly sister of longevity.  We need to look at a disruptive route forward if we’re going to effect a major change in healthcare in the Western world.  Although we keep looking to the mobile industry for a lead in moving forward, it increasingly looks as if they’ve come to the plateau of stagnation, where they have difficulty in seeing past the issue of customer acquisition and retention and the safety blanket of voice ARPU.

That’s why the “Doctor in your Pocket” report is so welcome.  It highlights the fact that there’s no one model that has to be followed.  Each of the countries put forward as examples have very different dynamics and customer sets.  In one the major user base is young men.  In another it’s mothers.  In all cases the users like the service and find it beneficial.

In the mHealth sessions of the conference it was obvious that the companies that consider themselves to be major players in bringing mHealth to the Western world really do live somewhere else.  Having heard that pricing was an issue for some users who couldn’t afford $0.07 minutes a call, well known technology names indicated that it wasn’t a problem – they had all of the technology needed to deliver a solution that would generate many multiples of that revenue for the mobile networks. Patients didn’t come into it.  We don’t need technology to move forward in mHealth – we need people to grasp the nettle and do it.

The developing world is not alone in having people who cannot afford healthcare.  If we open our eyes we’ll find them living in every country in the world.  mHealth offers a way to improve their quality of life.  The initiatives announced today show that if we want it to work we can make it happen.  With luck, they will foster more innovation in the developing world, bring better health to millions.  If we’re really lucky, some of our networks will notice that they can do it too.  We should stop playing games with technology and start thinking about how we can benefit society.