The virtual medic will text you now

In many isolated communities around the world, basic cellphones serve as medics and smartphones as diagnostic clinics.

Woman viewing a cellphone (Courtesy of Medic Mobile)
A partner organization’s staff member reviews pregnancy guidance provided through a Medic Mobile app. (Courtesy of Medic Mobile)

Mobile devices, particularly inexpensive basic cellphones, expand the reach and effectiveness of health care in the developing world as health workers send text-based medical advice, keep patients’ records, monitor for epidemic outbreaks and keep account of medical supplies. In Bangladesh, parents can register for child-vaccination alerts, and mobile health (mHealth) programs such as MAMA South Africa improve maternal/infant health for hundreds of thousands of people.

In some cases, people who are ill but have no access to medical facilities can rely on smartphones equipped with apps for diagnostic tools rather than walk for hours or days to the nearest health center.

Community at the center

Startups are particularly well-positioned to advance mHealth because they typically are more adaptable and responsive than governments or larger companies, according to Christina Synowiec of the Center for Health Market Innovations.

Woman using cellphone, another seated next to her (Courtesy of Medic Mobile)
An African health worker uses Medic Mobile on a basic phone. (Courtesy of Medic Mobile)

One such startup, Medic Mobile, focuses on maternal and child health and disease surveillance. Started in 2009 by Stanford University student Josh Nesbit, it offers mobile and web-based software packages to community-based health workers in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Nesbit views the technology as “a hugely important facilitator” of a shift from the centralized health care systems to community-based care supported remotely by clinical staff.

A man and a woman looking at a cellphone (Courtesy of Medic Mobile)
Medic Mobile staff members train health workers in Nepal. (Courtesy of Medic Mobile)

Medic Mobile partners with more than 50 governments and nongovernmental organizations to reach its ambitious goal: to boost the number of health workers using its system from the current 13,000 to 200,000 by 2020. That would mean 100 million patients, according to the group.

Ultimately, Nesbit envisions the best Medic Mobile digital tools embedded into national health systems. He believes his groups’ and others’ mHealth efforts will amount to a transformation of health care.