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August 14, 2015

Healthcare through mobiles – how networks are saving thousands of lives

By linking patients in Africa with doctors in the UK, mobile-enabled healthcare is being delivered across the network.

By Alexander Sword

In many developing countries, including in parts of Africa and Asia, connection infrastructure has not followed the same path as in the West.

Western countries began with fixed networks and followed with mobile networks later, developing economies have skipped this phases and gone straight to mobile.

One sector where this is having a huge impact is healthcare, where innovative practitioners are using the connectivity to change the way care is being delivered to tens of thousands of patients.

In Zambia, the telemedicine charity the Virtual Doctors was founded to connect health workers on the ground in Zambia with a team of volunteer doctors in the UK. The local team use mobile devices to submit patient data to the doctors, such as images, to receive a peer opinion or diagnosis.

The software is downloaded as an app onto a light-weight, durable tablet provided by the charity.

According to Huw Jones, founder of the charity, this aims to tackle the "unnecessary morbidity and mortality from very easily treatable conditions.

"A lot of the problems are down not to the fact that there aren’t enough doctors in the country."

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With only 1600 doctors in Zambia and two thirds of them living in urban areas, the 8,941,702-strong (according to the world bank) rural population is dramatically underserved.

"In rural areas," said Jones, "you have clinics with health workers who do have the capacity to carry out certain procedures if they have the right support."

Jones "found that with a mobile network rapidly expanding in Africa it enabled us to get internet to deeper and deeper rural areas.

"If we turned back the clock about five or ten years we wouldn’t have been able to do all this; the mobile network is quite key in all of this."

The charity, which supplies 6 health centres serving between 12 and 17,000 people each, currently sees its service used to treat chronic conditions, but Jones hopes it will reach more patients.

"If we can help them to speed up patient diagnosis and prevent unnecessary, stressful and expensive (for the patients) referrals to distant hospitals, then usage may well increase."

The Virtual Doctors is not alone in looking at using the power of mobile to bring healthcare to Africa. Microsoft awards an annual grant to companies building mobile solutions to address care delivery problems.

One recipient was CellChek, a project based at the Nile University, which aims to develop a cost-effective mobile phone-based sensor network system to support patient monitoring and advising in Egypt. The data transfer will combine 3G transmission with short-range free communications to cheaply disseminate information.

These services are facilitated by the falling cost of devices. According to data compiled by ABI Research and the Wall Street Journal, the average price of Android devices dropped from between $300 and $350 in Q1 2014 to $254 in Q4 2014.

Overall, then, the emergence of mobile networks and the devices associated with them could ensure that expertise is delivered faster and further. This is not just limited to developing economies; while not necessarily relying on cellular networks like in Zambia, the role of the mobile device is gaining more and more of a role in the West as well.

Roula Vrsic, VP of global marketing at SOTI, which provides enterprise mobility management solutions to the healthcare sector amongst others, cites the example of a nurse administering care in a remote town who became concerned about a patient’s wound.

"She arranged a live, remote session with a wound specialist in New York City, several hundred miles away. Through the tablet he was able to direct her and diagnose that the patient had developed a serious infection.

"You see how enterprise mobility management made it possible through encrypted sessions for compliance and so forth. This wouldn’t have been possible without enterprise mobility management. You can see how it’s transforming not only the way we work but the way we live."

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