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By Dr Pieter Streicher, MD of BulkSMS.com. Uploaded on: 04 July 2011.
As we’ve started to see in South Africa and across the rest of the continent, the potential for mobile-enabled healthcare is enormous. Evidence from the GSMA Mobile Health Summit held in Cape Town at the start of June shows that mobile operators are currently leading the pack in this space. Going forward, however, it is vital that the balance of power shifts from the mobile industry to the healthcare sector, to allow the burgeoning mHealth sector to reach its full potential.
For the moment it is appropriate that mobile operators drive mHealth
initiatives in order to demonstrate to the healthcare sector what can be done
if they tap into the power of mobile. Partnerships between operators and the
healthcare industry to develop mHealth applications will act as a catalyst for
this new industry.
But a partnership-based approach is not enough in the long run. The strategy of
some mobile operators to own all mobile applications at all costs could stifle
innovation. Furthermore, mobile operators can only partner with a handful of
parties, yet there are hundreds of healthcare application developers who could
add value to the ecosystem. In order for mobile-enabled healthcare services to
reach their potential they need to work on any network, anywhere in the world.
Developers in the healthcare industry need to be able to build network-agnostic
applications that can be bought off the shelf and deployed in any country.
With this in mind, mobile operators should provide access to mobile
communication channels such as SMS and use open standards to enable
connectivity to their networks. The operators must not lose focus of their core
business, which is to provide reliable and cost effective mobile communications
with maximum reach.
The opportunities for mHealth extend all the way from straightforward phone
calls and SMSs to the potential afforded by smartphones, which have all the
power and connectedness of computers as well as all the advantages and features
of mobile devices.
But as has been so often the case in the mobile industry, innovation is likely
to emerge in the developing world. There are a number of reasons for this,
including the over-regulation of the developed world’s healthcare industry
making innovation a very slow and tedious process. In addition, with a single
doctor to every 55,000 people in Africa, compared to one doctor per 200 people
in the USA, there is the immediate drive to extend the reach of available
medical care in the developing world via mobile technology.
Where extended reach to a great population dispersed over a large area is key,
as it is in the developing world, SMS services provide the solution. This is
why there are already a number of well-documented examples of SMS being used to
remind patients, especially those suffering from HIV/Aids or tuberculosis, to
take their medication regularly and continually.
SMS communication also plays a key role in ensuring at-risk babies are tested
for HIV at the appropriate time and then receive medication immediately if
necessary. SMS is also used in healthcare logistics to prevent stock-outs by
reminding pharmacies to submit stock counts timeously.
In the pharmaceutical sector, a company called Sproxil is tackling the problem
of counterfeit drugs in Africa with SMS. Counterfeit TB and malaria drugs cause
up to 700,000 deaths a year in Africa, but by having consumers confirm the
authenticity of the drugs they receive by SMSing a unique product ID to a
shortcode many lives are being saved. The company said it helped legitimate
drug companies to increase their sales by 10%, clawing back the business from
Because it is easier to innovate in the healthcare space in the developing
world, emerging markets are going to quickly leapfrog technologies available to
patients in the developed world and provide practical, cost-effective mHealth
With the potential for innovation in the mHealth sector, the industry needs to
evolve from one of partnership with operators to being led by the healthcare
industry and application developers, who have industry-specific experience. In
the SMS messaging space, this is possible through the role wireless application
service providers (WASPs) play in providing developers of mHealth solutions
with access to more than 800 mobile networks around the world. A vibrant,
competitive WASP environment is key to the maturation of the mHealth sector.