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Exploring the Role of Mobile Technology in Uganda Health Care

Two decades ago, a woman having a difficult birth in a Ugandan village would have had few options to get life-saving treatment if there was not a nearby health clinic. But today, mobile technology can help her get advice from a doctor in Kampala over the telephone, alert a community health worker about her situation, or even get her to a hospital.

Mobile technology is changing the landscape of health care delivery across the developing world by giving people who live in rural villages the ability to connect with doctors, nurses and other health care workers in major cities.

“Now, a phone call can compress the time that it would have taken before to come to that decision point and get the woman care more often and quickly,” said Dr. Alain Labrique, a professor of International Health and Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore.

More than 60 faculty members and 120 students are part of the Johns Hopkins Global mHealth Initiative, which has 51 projects exploring the use of mobile technology in health.

Its work received such a positive response that in March 2013, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health will begin two courses on incorporating mobile technologies into global health fieldwork.

“The students coming into global health today are challenged with the need to think of the potential appropriate use of these technologies in the resource-limited areas where we work,” said Dr. Labrique. “There’s a lot of excitement among faculty, but there’s 10 times as much excitement coming from students.”

“What mobile technologies are doing is changing the way that we see global health in terms of our ability to impact populations, to collect data in real time, to develop real strategies to impact public health that we hadn’t thought of before,” he added.

Dr. Larry Chang, a Johns Hopkins researcher who studied H.I.V./AIDS and the use of technology in Uganda, said that “over the past decade of working in Africa you really started seeing this amazing growth in the use of mobile phones and it seemed obvious to use it for global health.”

While mobile technology is one of the quickest ways to deliver health care to those who would otherwise have little to no access, there are challenges in making the technology effective.

“There hasn’t been a lot of rigorous evaluation of their impact,” said Dr. Chang. “We need to study and make sure that these devices are doing what people say they are doing and that they are really helping people.”

Students face challenges beyond simply figuring out the most efficient way to use mobile technologies to deliver health care.

When phones can bring care to 50,000 patients as opposed to 50, it is important that other resources, like health care professionals and medical services, also be increased to support the larger workload, Dr. Labrique said.

He said that “mHealth has the potential to be integrated into the way we teach.”

“We have to be able to demonstrate how much impact on a mortality or health outcome they have before they actually get recognized by global bodies like W.H.O. and the mainstream health system,” Dr. Labrique added.

New York Times

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