Why you should care

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Faith Gesare was enjoying a day trip with some girlfriends in Nairobi when suddenly things turned very wrong. Her friend had slipped and hurt her leg. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, she pulled out her smartphone for help.

No, not to call for help, but to use a special app that offered details on first aid and nearby clinics.

These days, it seems like there’s an app for every human need imaginable, from locating the nearest sushi restaurant to getting lucky on a Wednesday night. But in Africa, apps are also saving lives. Curing preventable blindness, diagnosing malaria or monitoring diabetics’ health during Ramadan are some of things mobile phones are doing on the continent. Hundreds of so-called “mHealth” initiatives, like MedAfrica (the one Gesare and her friends used), are popping up from Senegal to South Africa and gaining traction, thanks to the backing of phone operators like Orange and tech companies like Samsung. The goal is to use Africans’ love of mobile to close the gap between patients and caregivers.

Except it’s more than a gap — it’s an abyss. The lack of health infrastructure forces many — especially in isolated rural areas — to walk for miles to seek treatment. Meanwhile, about two-thirds of households in sub-Saharan Africa have at least one mobile phone. In Kenya, there are only two doctors for every 10,000 people, but the nation has 67 percent smartphone penetration, so mHealth is gaining users.

Of course, this is not the first mobile-led revolution to hit Africa. Mobile payments and mobile farming are already changing millions of people’s lives by helping them save money or figure out how much to charge for their plantains. Their success makes mobile health look promising — but the latecomer is struggling to gain the same momentum. The list of challenges is long. Literacy is not a given, power can be unreliable and smartphones are still rare in many areas. The IT backbone is so weak in some countries that when smart health apps were being tested out in Liberia, some feared the whole network would collapse.

Besides delivering content, mHealth lets patients give policymakers and health workers feedback they need to be more effective.

Yet the biggest roadblock in mHealth’s path is profitability (or lack thereof). Unlike mobile banking platforms, many health apps are not for profit, which naturally puts off investors. “Health financing is a huge issue,” says Sean Blaschke, health systems strengthening specialist for UNICEF, “and without sufficient investment, even the best tool in the world won’t work.”

Indeed, the newborn sector faces a conundrum: Make users pay, knowing that will alienate those who need it most. Or make no profit and be unable to sustain the service in the long term. Public investment could be a solution. Meanwhile, companies like MedAfrica hope to grow by starting to run ads for health-related services or offering premium subscriptions.

For now, mHealth is shining the brightest in maternal care. Africa has the highest child mortality rate of all continents, but apps like MomConnect and MAMA hope to change that by offering advice to new mothers on how to take care of themselves and their babies. A program run in Kenya by Medic Mobile — a platform that works via SMS and operates in seven different African nations — increased the percentage of women delivering in the presence of skilled care by 140 percent.

Mobile health could also be crucial in containing disease outbreaks. Apps like Ebola Care and Ebola-Info-Sharing — which help health workers diagnose and manage patients — already played a key role in stopping the virus in Nigeria. Mobile solutions can even help increase trust in the health care system. For example, mPedigree is working with some of the world’s biggest pharma companies to fight counterfeiting with a simple application that allows pharmacists and patients to verify the authenticity of a medicine in seconds.

Zuhura Odhiambo’s sits with her cousin Halima Hussein at her home in the Kibera slum. Zuhura is a local community health worker and works to document and help improve local sanitation conditions.

Local health worker Zuhura Odhiambo sits with her cousin Halima Hussein at her home in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, where she helps improve local sanitation conditions.

To be sure, it will take more than lines of code to upgrade health care in Africa. “Above all, we need more doctors and many more health facilities, because even when we find one for our users, they often complain it takes hours to get treated,” says Mary Njuguna, MedAfrica’s representative. But while apps can’t replace hospitals, they can help build better ones. Besides delivering content, mHealth enables patients to give policymakers and health workers the feedback they need to be more effective.

Governments are already getting behind the idea. Kenya has a master plan for coordinating existing mHealth projects, and Uganda just finished building a database of all its doctors for new mobile initiatives to use. Meanwhile, health apps like MedAfrica and MPedigree are starting to offer their solutions to Pakistan and India.

So don’t be surprised if the next time you get a stomach bug or another health issue in a developing country and you want to call a doctor, a local suggests you whip out a phone and ask an app for help instead.

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