has m-health finally come of age?

The ITU and WHO have launched an m-health initiative which aims to combat non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and chronic respiratory diseases -- some of the leading causes of death worldwide.

The attempt focuses on strategic use of text messaging and apps to accomplish this, so we thought we'd take a moment to mention just a few of the m-health initiatives which are already taking place globally.

The first thing to note is that mobile technology can play a valuable part in saving and improving lives, particularly in remote regions of the planet, access to m-health can help doctors work with large and dispersed populations.

These forms of disease are among the leading causes of death and disease in both developed countries and emerging economies alike, contributing an estimated 36 million deaths to the 57 million deaths which take place each year.

There's a role for mobile in treatment of communicable diseases too.

targeting care

Most recently a pioneering research project helped trace the source of malaria in Kenya. This used location data gathered from 15 million cell phones to track population movements, in so doing the project managed to identify in which region the infection was coming from, enabling government bodies to target their resources in the region.

There's other initiatives that should help improve global well-being: apps to help people improve their self-care (diet and exercise trackers, for example); exercise monitoring (Nike+) -- even medical advice. That sector's particularly interesting because it doesn't stop at medical guides, but also includes doctors who might monitor the condition of remote or housebound patients using video and text messages.

In future, your phone should be able to monitor your heart, check your blood-sugar levels and track and analyze other aspects of your physical condition.

The ITU/WHO initiative isn't aimed at future medicine, but on preventible disease. These will include schemes to help people quit smoking, take more exercise and eat more healthily.

good housekeeping

This use of mobile technology to combat avoidable deaths isn't just altruism -- there's an economic imperative driving the mission. A PriceWaterhouseCoopers Healthcast 2020 study suggests countries could be spending 16% of their GDP ($10 trillion) on healthcare by 2020.

In 2002, cumulative health expenditure in the 24 OECD countries in 2002 was $2.7 trillion. That's a huge slice of national budgets, and with an aging population (there will be two billion people aged over 60 worldwide by 2050) steps to make those health service dollars go further make sense.

The urge to fitness could help end the scourge of obesity, which has more than doubled since 1980. Apps such as Carb Master or Intelli-Diet can help phone users track their eating habits. Better eating and lifestyle habits could also help ease the problem of diabetes, treatment of which cost $465 billion worldwide in 2011. 

healthy living

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has been exploring ways to harness this ubiquitous technology to boost healthcare. As part of its work it has created a library of different interacitve and evidence-based smoking cessation text messages which it is making available.

In India and South Africa, text messaging is being used to monitor the condition of pregnant women who may be unable to easily visit a doctor. All they need to do is register the date their child is due and they'll be sent test messages with information that matches their child's development, offering advice such as how they should be feeling and what they should be eating while carrying their child.

Some may argue that m-health solutions cannot replace proper medical care, but for those unable to access such care, they do at least offer some form of support -- and as devices become more powerful, perhaps for many ailments and conditions there will come a time when you don't need a doctor at all.

Are you aware of any pioneering work in this field? Let us know in comments below.


Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.