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Why mobile phones make a difference to healthcare in Sub-Saharan Africa

In 2000, just 5.5 out of every 100 people in the developing world held mobile phone subscriptions, a rate too low for mobile phones to have a large impact on the delivery of health services. Despite this, researchers recognized the potential impact that mobile technology could have on improving health in low-income settings, and began implementing small-scale projects to test and understand how mobile phones could be used to improve the delivery of healthcare. 

Just ten years later the number of people living in the developing world with mobile subscriptions had risen dramatically – to 67.6 inhabitants out of 100 – and that rate of access continues to grow. Mobile phones can play a significant role in empowering decision making for Community Health Workers, and in improving the accuracy and efficiency of health data collection.

Connecting remote Community Health Workers to the central healthcare system

Mobile phone and internet usage is rapidly spreading in developing countries, and is increasingly being used to connect Community Health Workers, particularly in rural areas, to the central healthcare system. While not a replacement for a functioning supervisory and training system, mobile communication and information transfer can provide opportunities for improved remote management and monitoring of service delivery.

Initial research suggests this is a low-cost measure which can have a great impact on the quality of health services. But as this technology requires telecommunications and electricity infrastructure, there continues to be a need for strong partnership with the telecommunications industry, through mechanisms such as the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development, to bring coverage to rural areas.

Mobile phones for collecting data and empowering decision making

Mobile phones have a considerable role to play in supporting Community Health Worker’s decision-making ability.

Studies conducted in Egypt, Cameroon and Malaysia demonstrate that mobile phones can significantly improve decision making and health outcomes when used by health professionals to consult with more highly skilled members of the workforce.

Mobile phones can also be used to collect and analyse data, enabling Community Health Workers to provide more targeted care for their communities. A number of studies have demonstrated that data collection on mobile phones can both reduce the number of errors compared to paper-based data collection, and reduce the amount of time required for preparing data for analysis.

Finally, mobile phones can be used for training health workers and the communities that they serve, thereby addressing one of the core challenges to developing a professional, educated Community Health Worker workforce.

Find the full Technical Task Force Report here.