Simple mobile technology, like basic cell phones can save the lives of mothers in childbirth and improve the care of newborns and children by reaching underserved populations in remote areas. Global public health sources estimate that between 342,000 to 550,000 women die during pregnancy and childbirth each year, and 3.7 million children die each year before they are 30 days old.
By using advanced mobile technologies, patients can be checked, better records can be maintained, better methods can be used to diagnose and treat mothers, newborns, and children in the field, and community health workers will be able to consult with general practitioners and specialists to obtain information and guidance.
Five years ago, the idea of using cell phones to improve healthcare for mothers, infants, and children wasn’t feasible. This has changed rapidly now since 70 percent of the world’s five billion cell phone subscribers are in the developing world, almost 90 percent of the world’s population has access to a wireless telephone signal, three quarters of mobile phone users have texting capability with features such as GPS, and by 2010, 60 percent of mobile phones are expected to be web-enabled.
“At the most basic level, mobile phones can be used to track people, call for emergency assistance, and provide appointment reminders, says Julian Schweitzer, PhD, former Chair of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Care (PMNCH) and the Chair of the Finance Working Group for the UN Secretary-General’s Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health launched in September.
However, infrastructure is still a problem in remote areas where transmission is often poor and is particularly difficult where midwives are needed the most. In addition, the lack of available data in the local language can also be a barrier.
As growth occurs, more than 100 countries are exploring ways to use mobile phones to improve health. A few of the current programs are:
• The Maternal mHealth Initiative, a partnership between PMNCH and the mHealth Alliance is going to conduct trials using an integrated information and communications technology system to underpin the full continuum of recommended care for expectant mothers and newborns
• The Earth Institute’s Millennium Villages Project is working with governments and ministries of health along with telecommunications companies like Ericsson, AirTel Bharti, and MTN in ten countries in Africa to design, test, and implement standardized and interoperable mHealth systems
• The University of Oslo’s Health Information Systems Program (HISP) is using basic cell phones to collect data on maternal and child health in an integrated manner in locations where there are no computers or access to the internet
• A pilot project in Aceh Besar, Indonesia provided a group of midwives mobile phones and documented their use and experiences. The midwives that were given the phones found them to be a basic necessity
PMNCH was formed to ensure that all countries meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG) to improve the health of women and reduce the toll of infant and child deaths by 2015. MDGs 4 and 5 are of special concern which calls for reduced child and maternal mortality.
The most recent assessment notes that 49 of the 68 high-burden countries have made little, if any progress toward meeting goals 4 and 5 cautions Joan Dzenowagis, M.D., of the World Health Organization. Also, most pilot projects are designed as a single solution for a specific problem plus in the field different systems are used which results in a lack of coordination and leads to duplication of expense and effort.