Andrea Coleman: does Africa need ‘thealth’ rather than mHealth?

In this Huffington Post article Mrs Andrea Coleman, President, joint founder and CEO, Riders for Health makes some sweeping oversights of the mHealth market that I thought might be worth addressing:

“It has to be recognised that despite the exciting potential (of mHealth), there are limits to what a mobile phone can do. Much of rural Africa does not have signal reception – I have found myself climbing steep hills in rural areas hoping to catch a signal. I have not attempted climbing trees but I have seen it done”

I find it funny that foreigners underestimate the convenience mobile offers. I’ve no doubt Andrea would be more interested in climbing that tree if her alternative was an energy sapping or expensive hike. In the eyes of an African the idea of climbing to receive a money transfer (remember more than 30% of GDP in Kenya transits a mobile payment service) is probably not too dissimilar to how those in the UK might make a return trip to a cashpoint.

“It is mobility – the old fashioned technology of the internal combustion engine – that propels the ambulances and other vehicles that are so necessary, and yet so neglected, for equitable health care across Africa”

While it’s obvious that the Riders for Health social enterprise is all about this I’m surprised that there is so much interest in replicating the reactive healthcare systems we have in the west in Africa – where mobile is enabling new ways of doing things that can focus on the preventative opportunities. There is of course an important place for the combustion engine in healthcare but I’d prefer I avoided a condition than had an ambulance that could transfer me when I get one. I’d recommend those who dismiss the opportunity in mobile in favour of the combustion engine watch this TedXTalk.

Let’s call it ‘thealth’. Transport for health care. The physical movement of people and services to connect the 70% of people who live in rural Africa with health care is one of the most vital yet neglected aspects of health care on that continent. We can’t let the well justified excitement about the potential of the mobile phone distract us further from addressing mobility – physically connecting the health care with the community. This may be an old technology but a hands-on approach to health care will never go out of fashion

So where’s the rapid innovation that’s going to make this fast forward to the future happen? Is there some prolific growth in vehicle ownership in Africa? Have governments suddenly began supporting their people with commitments to building new road infrastructure?

I think one the biggest opportunities in mobile is that it’s owned by citizens.

But the day that a mobile phone can immunise children, deliver anti-retroviral drugs, or help prevent a mother suffering obstetric complications will be quite a day

The future might not be evenly distributed but welcome to that day!

> Can a mobile phone do more than immunise children?

Already is. Immunisation is a process whereby an individual’s immune system becomes fortified against an immunogen. Mobile (and radio etc) communication can be used can help prevent individuals from encountering immunogens. HIV and malaria awareness campaigns are well worth looking to for how this is being achieved.

> Can a mobile phone do more than deliver anti-retroviral drugs?

Already is. Medications for the treatment of infection by retroviruses aren’t needed if individuals don’t have retroviruses. The condom ringtone is a good simple example of how mobiles are being used to help raise awareness of safe sexual practices.

> Can a mobile phone help prevent a mother suffering obstetric complications?

In Bangladesh, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have claimed that nearly 2 million rural births in Bangladesh will be attended in 2012 by a healthcare worker because of SMS. In Tanzania mMoney is also having a dramatic impact.

About David Doherty
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2 Responses to Andrea Coleman: does Africa need ‘thealth’ rather than mHealth?

  1. Pingback: OA News: May 8-22, 2012 (Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Misc.) » oAfrica

  2. Pingback: What did they say? African tech quotes from May 2012 » oAfrica

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