Day 1 Highlights of mHealth Summit 2011

Ed note. I am pleased to welcome Tom Murphy to  UN Dispatch. Tom is attending the mHealth Summit in Washington, DC this week. You know Tom from A View from the Cave and elsewhere.  Follow him @viewfromthecave. 

The 2011 iteration of the mHealth Summit is currently being held at the National Harbor through this Wednesday.  Day 1 kicked off with high power keynotes from Dr. Patricia Mechael of the mHealth Alliance and Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services.  Dr. Mechael welcomed everyone to the conference and expressed her hope that it would allow “the global, national and personal perspectives to come together.”

Sebelius brought the perspective of public incubation of innovation for mHealth.  However, it was Dr Eric Topol, Vice Chairman of the West Wireless Health Institute, which captured the attention of the 3,600 attendees. The peak came when he did a live demonstration of a sonogram of his heart by using lotion from the hotel for the probe since he forgot to pack the gel.

He breezed through a presentation that was equally a survey of the promise of mHealth as it was a lesson on how to effectively use power-point.  At the heart of his talk was the idea of “creative destruction” made popular by economist Joseph Shumpeter.  The stethoscope, long seen as the sign of medicine is being replaced by handheld devices.  “I have not used a stethoscope in two years,” declared Dr. Topol.  The rapid growth of technology, he argued, will transform health in ways that we could have never predicted.

With the end of the keynotes, the exhibition hall opened at the bottom floor. It is set up like a standard trade hall with organizations and companies at each table.  The big players lead the way as giant showcases areas from Verizon and Qualcomm serve as the welcoming hub to the space.  However, it was the smaller tables that offered some of the most interesting discussions.  Private companies dominate the scene at the summit, but governments are not being left out.

The Ministry of Health and Social Welfare from Tanzania has a table where I had the opportunity to speak with systems analyst Marcos Mzeru and mHealth Country Coordinator Dr Mwendwa Mwenesi.  To encourage collaboration among mHealth practitioners and organizations, a Community of Practice was established by the Ministry of Health and D-Tree International. The collaboration between public and private has created a space where 40 programs participate in quarterly tele-meetings and an active Google Group.

The four session tracks, technology, business, research and policy, have set the tone for the event.  Missing from these sessions are the practitioners.  Because of this gap James Bon Tempo of Jhpiego and Linda Raftree of Plan have collaborated to host a ‘Reality Check’ booth.  The hope is that practitioners can connect through discussion with each other and individuals who are a part of the four tracks.  “It offers a space to share and learn from peers who implement mHealth programs on the ground and to get advice on resolving the kinds of difficulties that probably won’t be highlighted during the official presentations,” James wrote.

In the short time I got to spend at the booth yesterday, I had the opportunity to hear about the implementation challenges of Medic Mobile from Isaac Holeman which led to further conversation with people visiting the booth focusing on funding streams.

After spending time downstairs, I listened in on the maternal and health special session.  Leena Dhande of Lata Medical Research Foundation focused on breastfeeding in India.  The trial she presented sought to test if cell phone counseling and sms reminders from midwives can lead to more mothers exclusively breastfeeding their children in the first 6 months.

The randomized control trial was conducted in 4 hospitals that average over 9,000 births a year.  The participating mothers were split into two groups.  The treatment group was served by ‘lactational counselors’ who made 70-80 calls a day and sent 500-600 bulk SMSs daily.  The cell phones of the mothers were programed to have their respective counselor on speed dial and they were encouraged to conduct the calls on speakerphone.  Dhande said this was done because many household decisions are made by the senior members.

The results of the trial are promising.  The women provided the counseling and reminders were more likely to exclusively breastfeed, introduce complementary foods at the right and were less likely to bottle feed too early and need hospitalization for the children.  The most exciting part of the results is the fact that the intervention is so cheap and easy.

Today, day two kicks off and I will be attending sessions on maternal and child health in Africa and mHealth design.  Be sure to follow the conference hashtag #mhs11 to keep up with the latest happenings.