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Using Mobile Devices to Improve Healthcare Around the World
By Rob Knies
April 11, 2007 2:00 PM PT

The proliferation of mobile devices around the world has resulted in a more connected, more communicative world. Friends can chat. Colleagues can collaborate. Families can stay in touch.

All good things, of course, but with mobile technology having passed its novelty stage, some uses hold greater portent. The traditional role of the cellphone is evolving rapidly to provide more computing power, increased display capabilities, and enhanced Web connectivity. These projects are using the increased power of smartphones to explore bold, novel, and unconventional approaches to providing much-needed healthcare services. People are beginning to envision scenarios in which the ubiquity of such devices can have a more consequential impact, one that promises not only to empower individuals, but also to improve the lives of entire communities.

A couple of these projects have been made possible by a Digital Inclusion request for proposals (RFP) issued by Microsoft Research Redmond’s External Research & Programs group. The RFP was designed to encourage and support deep academic research to achieve breakthroughs in digital inclusion, and researchers in South America and Africa have stepped up to the challenge.

In Argentina, Guillermo Marshall and Marcelo Risk of the Laboratory for Complex Systems within the Computer Science Department of the University of Buenos Aires are pursuing the construction of a digital-inclusion kit to expand the frontiers of computer technology in health and higher education. In Botswana, Henry Nyongesa of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Botswana is striving to provide access to information that can improve the management of chronic health conditions.

Two projects, two continents, one complementary objective: bringing better healthcare to underserved populations via mobile devices.

“The main goal of our project,” Marshall says, “is to provide a fast way of communications between physicians and patients in underserved zones, both rural and urban, using mobile technology.”

Nyongesa’s work is similarly broad in scope.

“The project,” he says, “addresses the use of wireless and mobile telephony to provide healthcare-related information services that complement the clinical management of chronic conditions, such as HIV/AIDS.”

In each case, the obstacles are daunting. Travel costs to the nearest hospital can be prohibitive. Epidemics occur. Communication infrastructures might be skeletal or nonexistent. People who need care are often semi-literate or illiterate.

Daunting perhaps, but the potential rewards are vast. Consider the scenario suggested by the project being conducted by Marshall and Risk, called Digital Inclusion Kit in Health and Higher Education:

“As an example of a possible scenario of a telemedicine-kit application,” they say, “we imagine the link between a physician and the main medical office. The physician, in front of a patient, while checking the patient’s medical record, is able to make an inter-consultation with the main medical office in real time. Then the physician scans an X-ray image, performs an electrocardiogram, measures the arterial blood pressure, and finally shares all this data with the distant medical office for a more experienced opinion.”

To accomplish such a transformative reality, the project has designed a kit that connects tools to perform electrocardiograms or measure blood pressure to a mobile device such as a cellphone or a personal digital assistant. An optional global-positioning system could identify geographical information risk zones or particular-case regions. Medical education at both the student and postgraduate levels could benefit, as well, via continuing medical education and the discussion of clinical cases.

The work, say Marshall and Risk, holds enormous potential.

The Botswana project employs information servers and intelligent personal-information agents to derive and present information for individual users. Many African countries have labored under notoriously poor communication infrastructures, but the advent of cellular networks has diminished greatly the effects of being off the grid. As Nyongesa notes, Botswana now has one of the highest penetrations of mobile devices in the world; about one in three people in the nation have a cellphone.

“This is a major step,” he says, “toward taking advantage of the benefits of information and communication technologies.”

Nyongesa’s project, Integrated Healthcare Information Services Through Mobile Telephony in Botswana, is designed to harness such nascent potential.

“Access to information sources will be vital for African countries to realize their development goals,” he says, “in the areas of healthcare, education and social development. In healthcare, for example, access to appropriate information can minimize visits to physicians and periods of hospitalization for patients suffering from chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and HIV/AIDS. This will, in turn, reduce the cost of healthcare provision.”

His idea is to develop and test an integrated, Internet-based healthcare-information service via a collection of Information Server and Intelligent Personal Information Centres that will identify and provide appropriate information for individual users. To do so, Nyongesa’s work must overcome challenges including representing and modeling user needs; finding, translating, and providing multimedia content in local languages; developing information that can be transmitted to users unable or barely able to read; and consolidating the fruits of his research into a useful tool for search and retrieval.

It is, Nyongesa says, “a great opportunity.”

He, Marshall, and Risk are among those who are tackling tough research problems that must be solved to bring the advances enabled by information and communication technology to people living in rural and low-income urban environments, a population estimated to be as large as 4 billion people worldwide. To achieve this goal, entirely new technological approaches may be required. Recipients of Microsoft Research’s Digital Inclusion RFP awards are investigating unique, novel ways to bring this vision to life.