article is part of an online debate series on mobile health by the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, Johnson & Johnson, the mHealth Alliance, Impatient Optimists and Forbes.com.
Dr. Alain Labrique is the founding director of the Johns Hopkins University Global mHealth Initiative, a multi-disciplinary consortium registering over 82 faculty projects and 150 students engaged in mHealth innovation and research across the Johns Hopkins system.
Poor maternal, infant, and child health as well as inadequate coverage of family planning remain significant global health problems facing low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) today. Despite a 47% reduction since 1990, nearly 300,000 women still die annually from causes directly related to pregnancy. The majority of these deaths are attributed to preventable obstetric complications prior to, during, and following delivery, with developing countries carrying the vast majority (99%) of the burden. Additionally, although mortality for children under five years of age has decreased from 12 million annually at the beginning of the last century (in 1900), to 6.9 million annually in 2011, the burden of these deaths now falls primarily in LMICs, with most of these deaths also due to preventable causes. In these same countries mobile phone coverage and access has become nearly ubiquitous, with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimating in 2013 that the number of mobile phone subscriptions (6.8 billion) is nearly equal to the human population of 7.1 billion. The opportunity this represents is one that has not been lost on the global health community.
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This leapfrogging of traditional infrastructure has spurred innovative thinking and spawned countless efforts across the globe to harness mobile telephony and wireless computing for public health use. When the most disenfranchised populations can be reached by a mobile phone call, can we begin to make inroads to help improve the efficiency, coverage, quality and reach of essential maternal, newborn and child health services ? Can mobile telephony be used as a conduit to improve how public health interventions are delivered ? Can mHealth, the broad term used to capture innovations at the intersection of mobile communications and health, be used to amplify the impact of interventions that are already known to save lives ? These are the questions that have been the focus of our research, as we develop and test strategies in real-world population settings, where the maternal and newborn health crisis remains the greatest.
Date: May 24, 2013