We’ve finally reached the milestone: There are now more cell phone subscriptions than humans on Earth. And it wasn’t even a long time coming. For developing countries, where the number of health workers can be as low as one for 10,000 persons and health centres are often missing, this increased connectivity could be an opportunity to increase both access and affordability of healthcare.

With penetration rate of 90% as of 2014, mobile technology has the potential to change the way healthcare information and services are being delivered to the population, both rural and urban. SMS technology for example has been used to track malnutrition in rural Uganda, remind patients to take their medicine in Kenya, inform pregnant mothers about best health practices throughout their pregnancy in India, help patients identify and report fake medicine in Ghana and improve supply-chain management across the board.

Mobile technology can also help countries leapfrog the design of their healthcare administration systems. The use of mobile technology—and the resulting move away from paper—has increased accuracy and reduced time and costs of information. For example, babies born outside hospitals can now be accounted for in Nigeria and Uganda using SMS, while the delays for receiving test results for HIV have been cut down from 45 days down to 2 in Zambia and Malawi. Furthermore, when combined with open access, m-health can increase transparency and accountability of government in delivering healthcare. Using their phones, patients in rural areas can now report absenteeism or corruption, for example.

This decentralisation of data collection, dissemination and reporting is making the patient an integral part of the healthcare value chain. Smartphone apps, for instance, have empowered users in dealing with their health. Apps such as MedAfrica or iTriage enable users to identify their symptoms and get in touch with the closest healthcare providers. In combination with miniature technologies, apps can also be used to monitor and report heart conditions, diabetes, quality of water and perform ultrasound scans. Although currently less widespread than mobile technologies (21% penetration rate vs 90%), mobile broadband is growing fast in developing countries, driven by attractive economics compared with fixed broadband (up to 30% cheaper). The sector has seen double-digit growth in developing countries, with Africa experiencing the fastest growth: Penetration of mobile broadband is now at 20%—compared with just 2% four years ago.

So, how long until we see a full transformation of healthcare systems based on mobile technology?

Not right away. While growth of m-health has been impressive (+30% between 2005 and 2011), many projects are still at the pilot level. Achieving scale up will require overcoming a series of significant barriers.

One is standardisation. Most of the IT developments that led to the successes discussed above were developed for specific operating systems of national governments and/or national telecom operators. This limits the transferability of a particular technological solution and of the data collected. Using open source platforms for SMS or smartphones could be a way to increase compatibility. An application developed on (and for) Android could easily be used by anyone with an Android smartphone no matter where that person is located.

Standardisation and coordination are also needed on the regulatory side, which has had a hard time catching up with the rapid spread of projects. This is, in part, attributable to the technology being new but also reflects the limited human and technical capacity of governments. These limits have  led to uncoordinated development of m-health pilot projects and raised the need for integrated strategies. In 2012, for example, Uganda issued a moratorium on further m-health pilots while it developed an e-health strategy and put a regulatory framework in place.

Last but not least is financing: Most of the money has come from public finance so far. To attract the private sector, industry will need to show that m-health can deliver improved health outcomes rather than just an increased flow of health-related information. Much more research on the cost-benefit of m-health is needed.

These barriers are neither new nor specific to m-health. But they highlight the importance of intelligent policy-making in garnering the benefits brought about by technology that, in the case of m-health, can be huge. According to a recent PWC report, m-health could save more than 1m lives over the next five years in sub-Saharan Africa alone.

This article is published in collaboration with GE Look Ahead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Elie Chachoua writes for GE Look Ahead

Image: A woman undergoes an eye examination using a smartphone at a temporary clinic by International Centre for Eye Health. REUTERS/Noor Khamis