Potential of mobile phones to deliver health information and services is huge, finds study

When William Blake predicted that you would one day “hold infinity in the palm of your hand,’ he must have been prescient. Today, with a mobile phone, you can do just that. Even save a life.

The potential of using mobile phones to deliver health information and services is huge, a recent study across five cities, has revealed. The initial results of the study, presented at a recent conference on ‘Transforming Healthcare with ICT’ at Hyderabad, have indicated that 55 per cent of those interviewed were willing to get medical consultation and treatment via the mobile phone. Unexpectedly, about 28 per cent had used the mobile for some health care function in urban areas, and about 17 per cent in rural areas.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the results,” says K. Ganapathy, president, Apollo TeleNetworking Foundation (ATNF), who conceptualised and executed the study, with the help of students of Apollo Nursing Colleges across the country. The questionnaire was designed after several rounds of discussions and review, in conjunction with Arun Rai, Regents Professor and Harkins Chair, Georgia State University.

“What started us off was the fact that we did not quite have any data from India about the awareness of mobile health (mHealth) services in the general population, and whether they were willing to accept such services, if made available to them. A lot of mobile services are being used by the public, but after all, health is not pizza,” Dr. Ganapathy explains. However, with a record 915 million mobile phones being used in India, which has a teledensity of 72 per cent in urban areas, and 52 per cent in rural areas, the temptation to see if health care can be made more accessible via the mobile is very high.

The study was done over the last nine months, and the analysis was done at Georgia State University. A total of 1866 final responses were received from subjects in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, West Bengal, and Chhattisgarh. It also showed that 22 per cent in rural areas were not aware of the SMS facility, and another 24 per cent, though aware were not using the service. About 21 per cent in urban areas and 53 per cent in rural areas were completely unaware that a mobile phone could be used to access the internet.

In contrast, Prof. Rai says, a study on consumer acceptance of mHealth in the United States showed that 38% of the respondents indicated that they had started using mHealth.

“There are mixed lessons from the survey for policy makers. Clearly, rural and urban India appear to be ready to use mHealth. But what we must remember is that these solutions need to be customised for different populations,” Dr. Ganapathy says.

Obviously solution providers must factor in income and education variables too, and incorporate the fact that 57 per cent are sharing phones. Ensuring utilisation, however, would not be possible without education, empowerment and building trust with the end users, he adds.

“Our study revealed that a one-shoe-size-fits-all approach should not be followed for mHealth in India," Prof. Rai says.

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