Researchers find mHealth trials in low income countries lacking in quantity and qualityPosted: January 26, 2013
With more than two thirds of the world’s population now owning a mobile phone, the opportunities to use these devices to improve health literacy and knowledge are tantalisingly attractive. Furthermore, according to the World Bank, nearly 5 billion of the 6 billion mobile subscriptions that exist are in developing countries, places where it can often be difficult to distribute health information using traditional methods. In countries that have low doctor to patient ratios and low literacy rates, talking directly to a health professional or picking up an information leaflet isn’t always feasible.
So no wonder mobile technology based healthcare, better known as mHealth, is seen as an exciting development in the sphere of health communications. However, a review of trials in this area published earlier this week with PLOS Medicine suggests that much needs to be done to demonstrate best practice in mHealth before it can be used effectively. Led by Caroline Free, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, researchers identified 42 controlled trials of mobile technology-based interventions that were designed to improve healthcare services. Studying the findings of these trials suggested that some interventions were modestly effective, particularly for disease management or appointment reminders, although other areas, such as transmitting photos for off-site clinical diagnosis, were detrimental.
Crucially though, researchers found there was trials of mHealth projects in resource limited settings were distinctly lacking; all of the 42 trials they studied had been carried out in high income countries. To establish how effective mobile based technology health interventions can be, more high quality trials need to be carried out in low income countries, the researchers stressed. They also added that, ideally, trials should look at how mHealth can be combined with conventional approaches.
Mobile technology based healthcare could potentially change how millions of people access services, talk with health professionals, and improve their understanding of health issues. There are opportunities in this area that should definitely be harnessed. However, as these researchers have shown, launching mHealth interventions without understanding best practice risks impacting negatively on patients and healthcare professionals, also wasting valuable resources, time and money.