With more than six billion mobile phones in use around the world and a growing population of people with access to tablets and other devices, it is no surprise phones are increasingly being used by individuals tracking their daily food intake and workout, researchers collecting data and doctors accessing patient information. Mobile health—or mHealth—also has the potential to help those in impoverished communities receive the health care that they deserve. Increased transmission speeds and technological advances give researchers as well as health care providers and national governments new opportunities to help people in remote areas improve their well-being. As Helen Keller International continues to extend its reach, mHealth technologies allow us to efficiently and effectively monitor our efforts to prevent blindness, fight malnutrition and end neglected tropical diseases in 16 of the 22 countries in which we work.
Research and analysis are central to Helen Keller’s approach, so it’s essential to have a platform that can handle copious amounts of data. “mHealth has the ability to capture data efficiently and accurately into a central server,” Ric Plaisance, HKI’s Vice President of Information and Operation Systems says. The convenience and practicality helps HKI implement initiatives benefitting more communities even quicker, while still staying committed to our evidence-based approach. “In the past, the process of getting survey results from the field would take 6-8 weeks,” Plaisance recalls. “With mHealth, this can now be done in minutes.”
For instance, Helen Keller’s Assessment Research on Child Feeding (ARCH) project investigates how food products for young children are promoted in Cambodia, Nepal, Senegal and Tanzania. ARCH utilized an mHealth application called Ona to compile data from surveys of mothers of young children visiting clinics and health facilities on their awareness of infant formula advertising, breastfeeding practices, and several other aspects of infant and young child feeding. The immediate data entry and centralization of survey results meant researchers had instantaneous access to the information, streamlining the process and data analysis. The app’s ability to also switch swiftly between languages helped HKI conduct the same survey across different countries, enabling us to quickly share insights.
mHealth can not only track interview responses—it can also track disease outbreaks and help save lives. During the height of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, an HKI staff member programmed a software to track new outbreaks and also monitored Ebola-affected areas. “The quarantine staff could use GPS coordinates to locate an affected household, go there to get a listing of all people in the household, get the information onto the command center’s dashboard, and then get food and security in place in the quarantined household within 24 hours,” now-IT Coordinator Mohamed Turay explains. Even after the epidemic was contained, the software continued to benefit our programs, ultimately putting Sierra Leone on track to fully eliminate Ebola.
Helen Keller has also used in mHealth in Côte d’Ivoire to remind mothers to bring in their young children for immunizations and vitamin A supplementation. The impact of the SMS and voice messages on mothers’ attendance was clear: 83% of the reminded mothers showed up to vaccinate their children, a 24% improvement over other mothers in the same communities who did not receive the reminders.
Though mHealth is just beginning to gain the exposure it deserves, using mobile devices to improve health outcomes in developing countries enables Helen Keller to champion health equity for the vulnerable quickly and effectively. The accessibility, flexibility and efficiency of data processing resulting from mHealth applications are critical as Helen Keller continues to spearhead programs to end preventable blindness and malnutrition worldwide.