Mobile Health and Collaborative Care

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smartphoneHow often do you really look at your smartphone and think what an amazing technological innovation it is? When it rings? When it sings? If you’re like most of us, the answer is probably “never.” Yet for many people, that same smartphone is literally a lifeline. For example, take what is being called in healthcare “the smartphone phenomenon.” It’s a perfect example of collective innovation.

The United Nations and the Vodafone Foundation currently document four dozen mHealth (mobile health) projects (PDF) around the world now active in various developing nations. Many of these programs are using text messaging to maintain private contact with patients.

In Rwanda, public health officials use mobile phones to send public health alerts to whole communities, including the ability to download medical guidelines from various health agencies such as the WHO and CDC. In many of these developing nations remote villages are the rule. The “Doc in a Box” clinic has emerged, dependent upon the mobile phone system to provide diagnosis and medical support to distant and otherwise unconnected community health workers.

Medicall Home logoMedicall Home in Mexico provides unlimited physician mobile phone consultations to 4.5 million customers for $5 per month. Let’s take a closer look at this last example to get a better idea of the impact of the mobile health phenomenon.

Imagine being a poor Mexican parent with a sick child and little or no access to a small but very good healthcare system. The average ratio of patients to healthcare providers is 1.8 doctors and 2.2 nurses per 1,000 population, which leaves you very little opportunity to see a doctor. Yet there are almost 100 million smartphones in Mexico, equaling more than 45% of the population.

So, thanks to modern technology that leaped over 100 years of wires and poles, what you do have is a link to the doctor. Thanks to innovative healthcare providers who are still able to think like that poor Mexican parent, what you also have is Medicall Home, a healthcare company that provides hotline-based medical services to more than five million subscribers at a cost far below the charge for a physician’s visit. For a monthly enrollment fee of USD $5, charged to the phone bill, subscribers are offered the following services:

  • Members are able to reach qualified doctors 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Doctors make diagnosis based on standardized clinical protocols developed by the Cleveland Clinic. This service is provided free of charge.
  • Members are able to request at-home doctor visits at a reduced price.
  • Members receive one free ambulance service. All subsequent ambulance calls are offered at a reduced price.
  • Members have access to a referral network of 6,000 physicians and 3,200 health service providers such as hospitals, clinics, and laboratories. Network providers offer discounts to Medicall subscribers. When your child is sick, you dial Medicall Home, describe the symptoms, the child’s age, and any other physical characteristics that might be important. The doctor on the other end of the phone lets you know that it’s not serious and you can go to the farmacia to treat the illness, or that it could be serious and you need to talk to a doctor, or that it is indeed serious, and you need to get to a clinic or hospital right away.

Innovation that takes something we take for granted and uses it in a new way. Innovation that extends healthcare access, increases the amount and quality of care, improves the lives of millions of people while significantly reducing the cost of healthcare.

The Medicall Home hotline receives an average of 90,000 calls per month. And here’s the key — of all cases received, approximately two-thirds are resolved over the phone, eliminating the need for a doctor’s visit and lifting significant pressure from the healthcare system.

According to the Information Advantage Group and other medical organizations, continuous patient care has become the number one unintended consequence of the smartphone. Next time your phone rings, think about that before you answer. That phone system is probably saving some child’s life someplace on this big interconnected planet of ours. It’s all about how you look at it, taking a thing further than what it was designed to be, continuously innovating into a new and better thing.

Source: “mHealth for Development: The Opportunity of Mobile Technology for Healthcare in the Developing World” (PDF), UN Foundation-Vodafone Foundation Partnership, 2009
Source: “The Business of Social: Social Media Tracker 2012,” UM study, Dec. 2011, Media Publications Database
Image by liewcf (Cheon Fong Liew), used under its Creative Commons license.

David Grebow is the news editor at David is a writer, editor, and author of many books, including A Compass for the Knowledge Economy. He has been called one of the “most original thinkers in the fields of human performance, human capital solutions, learning and elearning.”