Puja lives in a remote village in Bangladesh with her husband and his elderly father. She got married a year ago, and now she is pregnant with her first child. She is concerned about what diet to follow to ensure the baby is strong and healthy, but the doctor only comes by her village every second week.

Somporn lives in north-eastern Thailand, running a rice farm with her family. Her husband has a bad cough, and she is worried he might have tuberculosis. She suspects that he does not take the medication that was prescribed to him, and that he does not take his condition seriously.

Joachim is a retired corporate executive and widower living outside Kuala Lumpur. He suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and regularly needs to go the hospital for treatment. His frequent trips to the hospital are expensive, and hospital stays forces him to stay away from home, friends and family for long periods of time.

Puja, Somporn and Joachim belong to three very different societies. They lead different lives and have different abilities to obtain proper healthcare. For Puja, healthcare personnel simply aren’t available. For Somporn, medical assistance is there but her husband still may not benefit from it. And for Joachim, money is no issue – but time and travel are.

As the economies of East Asia continue to grow, their healthcare systems are becoming better equipped to extend high quality services and more sophisticated treatments to growing number of their citizens. They have been able to address some of the health challenges faced by developing countries, such as infant mortality and maternal deaths. However, economic, social, and demographic changes are putting increasing pressure on healthcare systems. Communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, HIV/AIDS, measles, and polio also remain prevalent in the region.

Simultaneously, East Asia must tackle the rising incidence of diseases often associated with more mature economies, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancers, diabetes, and illnesses that relate to lifestyles or age. Conditions such as psychiatric and mental illnesses and chronic pain are also on the rise, and are expensive to treat.

Mobile health technology can help people like Puja, Somporn and Joachim. According to a recent study conducted in 12 countries, including Thailand, by The Boston Consulting Group and Telenor Group, mobile healthcare (mHealth) initiatives can have significant impact on the effectiveness and reach of healthcare systems, as well as in dissemination of information and prevention of diseases. Mobile healthcare can help reach twice as many rural patients per doctor. Costs in elderly care can be reduced by 25%. Maternal and perinatal mortality can be reduced by 30%. Tuberculosis treatment compliance can be improved by 30-70%, and costs related to data collection can be reduced by 24%. Medical personnel is up for it, too. Our study shows that the smartphone is the most popular technology among doctors since the stethoscope.

Telenor Group has been working with mobile healthcare solutions for several years. Through our operating companies in Asia – Dtac, DiGi, Grameenphone, Telenor Pakistan and Uninor – Telenor contributes to a range of mHealth services, from epidemic surveillance and alerts and mHealth mobile applications in Thailand, to mobile information services for parents-to-be in Bangladesh. We also run services that enable healthcare professionals to extend information and consultations to rural and remote areas. We believe mHealth is an idea whose time has come.

Clear strategies, conductive regulations and strategic alliances are needed to enable countries in the region take full advantage of mHealth services. In the end of May, the World Economic Forum on East Asia is held in Bangkok. Leaders from governments and businesses in the region will gather to discuss the issues shaping the region for the future. I am looking forward to continuing the discussion there.

Sigve Brekke, Executive Vice-President, Telenor Group, and Head of Asia Region, Telenor Asia (ROH), Thailand. Telenor is an Industry partner of the World Economic Forum

Image: A woman comes out from a mobile cancer detection unit after her mammography examination during a free medical check-up camp in Chandigarh February 6, 2011. REUTERS/Ajay Verma