Mobile phones as medical lifesavers in Africa | Africa | DW | 03.03.2013
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Mobile phones as medical lifesavers in Africa

Access to health care is a major problem in many emerging and developing countries suffering from a lack of trained medical personnel. But mobile phones could help bring medical help closer.

Statistically speaking, there is one doctor for every 10,000 people in Kenya - a country of 38 million. The situation is particularly bad in the rural, less inhabited areas throughout Africa, where health care is even more scarce. Many regions in Asia and South America are facing similar problems.

At the same time, mobile phone networks often have good coverage across these regions, a fact at the core of a recent study presented by the industry at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this month.

The study's authors said doctors and relief organizations could make use of these networks to save millions of people's lives every year.

First aid on the phone

Preventative health care and emergency services have a particularly high potential for development by making use of mobile services, experts have said. Kenya is at the forefront of this movement: smart phones users in the country already have access to services that allow them to run basic health checks, analyze urine samples and check their blood sugar.  

There are also services for pregnant women that answer most of their questions both before and after giving birth. Until now, however, the use of smart phones has largely been limited to urban centers such as Nairobi or Mombasa, as it is only there that the mobile network offers the required capacities. That's according to Fred Majiwa, spokesperson of the nationwide St. John ambulance service, who called upon mobile operators to enable their networks for smart phone data use across the entire country.

That, in turn, would enable many Kenyans to expand their knowledge about what to do in an emergency situation - significantly supporting the work of ambulance services.

"The first five minutes are extremely important," Majiwa said. "If people have access to the information about what needs to be done during the first minutes after an accident, for anyone who is sick or injured this may well be the difference that decides between life and death."

Smartphone display with twitter app (photo: Soeren Stache/dpa)

Social media platforms can be used for emergency calls

Emergency calls via Facebook and Twitter

Emergency services take advantage of the fact that almost every Kenyan with a mobile phone has Internet access for their everyday work. But while people can call and get medical help in an emergency, this method of contact is still the exception, said Majiwa.

"What has come out is again the use of social media platforms - that is most prominently Facebook and also Twitter - because it's able to integrate with a normal phone's message system. So most people use such a social media to give us an alert whenever there's a kind of emergency that we can respond to."

In emergencies from remote agencies, they send an ambulance as soon as possible after the call for help, but that often takes hours due to the long distances.

That's why it's essential to have professional medical staff on-site as telephone assistance has its limits in emergencies, said Andreas Papp, the head of the Doctors Without Borders' Operational Support Unit.

"The wrong dosage of a drug can also have negative effects and you can't explain how to perform an operation to someone who has no medical training," Papp said. "And the 'do no harm' principle in humanitarian work also applies here."

If the assistance that can be given via telephone or a smart phone app has not been carefully thought out, it could do more damage than good. In addition, the severe shortage of medical staff has to be dealt with, Papp added.

An ambulance the Wilson airport for the hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, Photo: EPA/DAI KUROKAWA +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Ambulances are sent as quickly as possible, but that can sometimes still mean a long wait

"Medical staff has to be trained and health facilities have to be built in remote areas - with specialists who are well-equipped and free medical care," he said. "That would bring the people more than the information on what can be sent with mobile phones."

When calling for help

But until there is comprehensive health care in remote regions of Africa and Asia, mobile phones can play an important role. What is more significant is making the information as easy and accessible to understand as possible. DW Akademie's Bernd Rössle worked with NGO in Zimbabwe that developed a "Content-on-demand" service for the "Freedom Fone" project in Zimbabwe. It presented important information in short videos ranging from 60 to 90 seconds, so that they could be understood even when the connection was bad. That plays a very important role in health.

"Especially with epidemics, it's important that people get current information," Rössle said. "They can get information, for example, on what cholera is, how they can avoid getting infected and what they can do when the become infected. Those are questions, which are vital in Africa."

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