28 May 2012 - Geneva - It's a new digital world for a public health problem that still relies heavily on 19th century technology: x-rays sent by mobile phone for while-you-wait diagnosis, text messages with health advice for pregnant women and a mobile banking scheme that rewards doctors for finding new patients.
These are just some of the initiatives featured in Pushing the Frontier, a paper by the Stop TB Partnership and the mHealth Alliance which argues that mobile health (mHealth) could be a driving force in improving the reach and quality of tuberculosis (TB) care. The paper provides several examples of mHealth projects-including those supported by the Stop TB Partnership's TB REACH initiative-that have sped up diagnosis, helped patients complete their treatment and increased awareness about the disease, among other applications.
Published ahead of this week's GSMA-mHealth Alliance Mobile Health Summit in Cape Town, South Africa, the paper aims to kick start a conversation that will lead to wider adoption of mHealth approaches in TB care. There are hundreds of mHealth pilot projects, the paper says, but few of these have been implemented on a national scale.
"We are at a tipping point," said Dr Lucica Ditiu, Executive Secretary of the Stop TB Partnership. "There are an estimated three million people every year who we collectively fail to reach with diagnosis, treatment and heath care. Approaches pioneered through TB REACH show clearly that in TB, mHealth is a cheap and effective way of getting previously unreached people tested and treated. In the TB community we must all continue to innovate in delivering care and services, and to forge new partnerships with the private, public and nongovernmental sectors to accelerate mHealth implementation on a global scale."
To guide progress, the paper gives four recommendations. First, more evidence is needed on which mHealth applications work best in TB care. Second, mHealth partnerships must play on the strengths of a wide variety of stakeholders, from private companies to government departments. Third, project managers must design mHealth projects which respond directly to the needs of healthcare providers and patients, rather than looking to implement a certain technology. Lastly, mHealth projects must be tailored to local needs. For example, audio messages may be more appropriate than text messages in countries with low levels of literacy.
The Stop TB Partnership and the mHealth Alliance have agreed to work closely together to advance work on mHealth in TB. The two organizations invite people who are working in TB to join the Health Unbound (HUB) online community in order to share resources and discuss ideas for mHealth projects.
"Mobile technologies can bring new and innovative diagnostics and improved treatment processes to the fight against TB," said Madhura Bhat, Deputy Director of the mHealth Alliance. "Working with the Stop TB Partnership will allow us to directly reach those working in the TB field and will advance the integration of mHealth into TB diagnosis and treatment."
The mHealth Alliance, which is hosted by the United Nations Foundation, champions the use of mobile technologies to improve health around the world. It works with partners to share tools, knowledge and experience; advocates for research; and supports sustainable financing models, among other activities.