Expert insight

mHealth: the Opportunity for Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs)

15 July 2013
  • Eduardo Pisani

Mobile phones are the most rapidly adopted technology in the world: next year, there will be more mobile phones than human beings on this planet.

For all of us who work in global health the question is how can we leverage the power of these billions of mobile phones to advance global health goals? This question becomes more tangible when we look at the potential use of mobile technology to prevent and control Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs). As IFPMA’s latest report Health at your fingertips shows, this is already happening in a number of countries where pilot projects have been implemented. We now need to bring these pilots to scale.

Recently, I had the pleasure to discuss these issues during a round table we organized together with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The ITU and the World Health Organization (WHO) are already working on an intersectoral mHealth initiative Be He@lthy, Be Mobile, which we were really happy to join, bringing our knowledge, resources, lessons learned and technical expertise to help developing effective mHealth interventions for NCDs and help reach the objectives of the Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of NCDs.

The roundtable discussions gathered representatives of ITU, WHO, several capital officials and Ambassadors as well as leading representatives from civil society and private sectors. I would like to share with you some interesting observations.

It is an undeniable opportunity…
With almost everyone having a mobile phone, we all agree this represents an enormous opportunity to develop and test specific projects for the prevention and control of NCDs. With half of the disease burden preventable through focused behavioral change programs and increased health literacy, mobile phones can become a central tool in NCDs prevention. The list of advantages is long, from increasing access to health information in remote locations, empowering individuals, to assisting patients – on a direct and personal basis – in managing lifelong conditions. mHealth approaches are cost-effective and offer the opportunity to leverage several and diverse competencies through partnerships, relieving often constrained healthcare budgets.

…with some challenges
The issue of connectivity and coverage is what often comes forth as a major challenge. We are often confronted with the need for ensuring both an adequate infrastructure and the availability of smart-phones that can handle more complex applications and services which are often needed for mHealth initiatives.

The above leads to a question of affordability – equipment, hardware, services/bandwidth and energy need to become more affordable in many countries if we want to reach out to all populations.

mHealth has the potential of dramatically increase disease awareness and improve health literacy. Work in this regard needs to be coupled with breaking down silos between engineers and doctors to build and develop applications that are user-friendly, efficient, and supported by clinical evidence of the benefits of using them.

To meet these challenges we need to identify and put in place clear and coordinated policies, especially as mHealth approaches will be confronted with the challenge of managing sensitive health information.

A promising future if we work together through sustainable partnerships
It was very encouraging to see that all stakeholders agreed that partnerships are the best way forward to successfully leverage great mHealth opportunities ahead and overcome challenges.

In order to be successful these partnerships should be built on three main pillars. The first one should focus on scoping the project by identifying both an appropriate mix of partners and relevant competencies. Secondly, it is very important to agree on what success will look like and how it should be measured by concrete performance indicators throughout the process.

Thirdly, and maybe most importantly the sustainability of any partnership should be ensured and thought through since the beginning, ensuring alignment between stated objectives and users feedback.

Sustainability also means that we should not reinvent the wheel. Therefore it will be very important going forward to coordinate and share lessons learned, exchange experiences and identified best practices. In doing so, we should engage users, especially the young generation by making the projects fun, attractive and easy to share through social media channels.

Last but not least, sustainability will be achieved if we make sure that mHealth approaches are integrated in patient-centered health systems.

Our job is then to convince governments that this is a worthwhile investment, which will bring benefits to their populations and economies in the future.

I am very excited about the future of mHealth partnerships. I believe that the ITU partnership is a good example of such an intersectoral approach that links different players and sectors in a modern, practical, and focused fashion. I look forward to sharing our key learnings and experiences with you in the future.


  • Eduardo Pisani