Still no silver bullet

Tom Wheeler, Image Credit: GSMA

The conference ended last night on a positive note for developing countries. Tom Wheeler, chairman of the board of the mHealth Alliance, told the closing session that the developing world’s patchy healthcare systems make them extra suitable for mHealth applications, which will increasingly depend on services hosted in cyberspace, as opposed to facilities on the ground.

That said, mHealth solutions do not need to be sophisticated to deliver, he added. “It’s all about information, and the network that facilitates the transfer of information. And that information doesn’t have to be ‘zeros’ and ‘ones’. The ability to make a phone call to get someone to take a pregnant mother who is in distress, to a medical facility — there is nothing technologically revolutionary about that. But the impact of that is transformational.”

Personally, I got the feeling that many of the challenges and opportunities that have surfaced during the conference have done so before — and will do so again, at future mobile health meets. “It’s always the same talk,” said a woman I spoke to whose mHealth business had a stall at the exhibition part of the conference.

Another issue was the lack of doctors at a meeting dedicated to healthcare. One speaker on Tuesday commented that although this was a conference about healthcare, all the panelists on the stage at that moment were technology types.

So I leave heartened by what I’ve heard, and the enthusiasm I’ve seen, but wondering when we’ll see the promise of mHealth fulfilled in my own back yard in South Africa. It’s clear that what everybody is waiting and hoping for is a healthcare breakthrough like m-pesa, the mobile banking system that has become hugely successful in Kenya. Something so obviously useful that it can’t help but succeed.

There was no such silver bullet presented at this conference. But given the strong interest from techies and policymakers alike to get mHealth off the ground, this won’t be the last we hear on the subject.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

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