Mobile wireless technologies have the potential to aid speedy disease detection, treatment, and monitoring in remote communities. When combined with the power of computers and special software, they can work in real time and enable interventions by health authorities to prevent communicable diseases from turning into epidemics. The experience gained from a two-year bio-surveillance programme in Tamil Nadu's Sivaganga district indicates that this elegant idea, of using mobile phones and computers to generate and analyse health data, can deliver good results. The project, led by the Rural Technology and Business Incubator of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and LIRNEasia, a Colombo-based ICT policy think tank, is worth studying as a model. Central to the initiative is a team of health workers, who used simple java-enabled mobile phones equipped with a custom application to record and transmit disease symptoms reported by patients. The combination of data and computer analysis mapped the disease patterns for health administrators who then worked on interventions. The Tamil Nadu trial, which will be scaled up to connect more secondary and tertiary care institutions, makes one thing clear: measurable public health benefits can flow if governments take greater interest in the emerging area of mHealth, or mobile health. In fact, the benefits can go beyond disease-tracking and extend to such areas as remote patient monitoring, health education, and creation of community-level health profiles.
With recent advances in wireless, governments can today launch mHealth initiatives in several countries, notably those with weak health infrastructures in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The platform is supported by the GSM Association, the umbrella organisation of the mobile communications industry, and by non-profit organisations such as the United Nations Foundation-Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership. The mHealth initiatives undertaken so far also highlight the barriers to scaling up. Lack of good broadband mobile connectivity is the main obstacle. For India, the anticipated rollout of 3G and Wimax facilities should help resolve this problem, as should the fact that a number of States already have a broadband State-wide area network for exchange of data. There are major advances in public health and preventive medicine to be made with policy that is informed and empowered by a comprehensive mobile-enabled health database. For a complete picture to be available, private medical institutions, which cater to a large number of patients, should also be roped in.