Tackling Global Health on the Last Mile: Reflections on World Health Day

In places where there are few cars, where roads remain unpaved, where basic infrastructure services such as clean water and electricity are scant, mobile phone technology has become an enabling power for millions of people. As many readers of UN Dispatch already know, this is particularly the case in the field of global health, where mobile technology is revolutionizing healthcare delivery in the developing world (see some examples here).

Today is World Health Day, a day set aside to highlight a priority area of concern for the World Health Organization. This year’s focus is on the safety of health facilities, and the readiness of health workers who treat those affected by emergencies – a challenge, particularly in remote and resource-poor environments where health workers may have infrequent contact with home offices.

To put the opportunity of mobile technology for healthcare (or “mHealth”) in context, consider these figures. Today, there are 2.2 billion mobile phones in the developing world, compared to 305 million computers and only 11 million hospital beds. Mobile technology is not a panacea for the significant global health challenges we face today. But it is a powerful new tool that has the potential to extend the reach of health care to the “last mile” and may play a powerful role in meeting the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

There’s much work to be done. Each year, millions of children die from diseases that could be prevented through broad-based and routine immunization programs, education programs and health campaigns. Hundreds of thousands of women die as a result of complications during childbirth. Millions still succumb to HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. And much of the health care system in the developing world is faced with insufficient resources, lack of adequately trained staff, and frequent shortages of critical vaccines and medicines. The global economic crisis we all face will impose a disproportional share of the burden on the poor, resulting in even greater strains on overly burdened health care systems.

It is a daunting challenge but over the past decade, the world community has rallied to tackle some of these most vexing problems. Increasingly mHealth technology is being used to help meet the global health challenges of today. Electronic survey forms running on mobile devices can bolster a struggling health care system and help ensure timely data transfer on the vaccine stock levels in rural health clinics. SMS text messaging and other mobile-enabled programs can keep remote health workers up-to-date through distance learning programs, and health alerts and can provide patients with the information they need to live healthier lives.

Ongoing mHealth projects are already in motion throughout the world as detailed in our recent mHealth for Development report and involve education and awareness, remote data collection and monitoring, communications and training for health care workers, disease and epidemic outbreak tracking, and diagnostic and treatment support.

The mHealth Alliance, a new umbrella organization announced by the UN Foundation, Vodafone Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, will bring together key stakeholders from the public and private sectors, from government and civil society organizations, and from health and mobile technology industries. This collaboration will bolster the ability of sustainable and scalable mobile technologies to address healthcare challenges throughout the developing world, helping us reach the Millennium Development Goals.

Back in 2000, only the optimistic and determined few believed that measles deaths in Africa could be reduced by nearly 75% in less than a decade. But the success of the Measles Initiative showed that broad-based, multi-sector partnerships can enable us to accomplish together what no single actor could alone.

So while we continue to face substantial new global challenges, there is reason for optimism and determination. With the support of technological and scientific innovation, partnerships with developing world governments, the technical expertise and talent of UN agencies, resources from bilateral and multilateral donors and philanthropic organizations, and the generosity and good will of the grassroots public, together the global community will be able to reach those who need help most – especially those on the last mile.

Dr. Daniel J. Carucci is Vice President for Global Health at the United Nations Foundation, which operates a $30 million Technology Partnership with The Vodafone Foundation.