mHealth Alliance: "Mobile health has the potential to improve healthcare for millions"

Interview with Patricia Mechael, Executive Director of the mHealth Alliance

Whether in remote areas or in a large city – people everywhere need good healthcare. Thanks to mobile health, more and more people can get medical help, even in poor regions of the world.


Photo: Smiling woman with logn black hair - Patricia Mechael; Copyright: mHealth Alliance

Patricia Mechael; ©mHealth Alliance

Since 2009, the organization mHealth Alliance advocates the use of mobile technologies in medical care around the globe. talked to Patricia Mechael, executive director of the Alliance, about the application areas and the numerous projects of the organization.

Ms. Mechael, the mHealth Alliance champions the use of mobile technologies to improve health throughout the world. Which tasks does the organization have exactly?

Patricia Mechael: The mHealth Alliance has been the driving force behind a number of projects, partnerships and initiatives designed to strengthen the enabling environment for mobile health (mHealth) in low- and middle-income countries. In a growing number of countries, once-limited mHealth projects are beginning to achieve scale, thanks in part to mHealth Alliance funding, coordination, technical assistance and partnership support.

At the global level, the mHealth Alliance has produced over 20 publications in the field of mHealth, creating a healthy competition in the domain and an echo chamber effect which advanced movements in the reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health and aging along with strategic programming areas of evidence, standards, policy, capacity, gender, and sustainable financing.

The mHealth Alliance conceptualized and executed the Every Woman Every Child Global Catalytic mHealth Grant Mechanism in partnership with the WHO, awarding 26 catalytic grants reaching millions of women, children and health workers. These catalytic grants are complemented by research and technical support provided by the World Health Organization-Reproductive Health and Research (WHO-RHR) and the mHealth Alliance to help the organizations achieve objectives related to scale, sustainability, partnership-building, and generating knowledge relevant to the broader health community.

In which areas of the world are you active the most?

Mechael: Most of the mHealth Alliance’s activities are focused on Africa and Asia, although the Alliance also had discreet engagements in other areas of the world, including South America. The mHealth Alliance’s membership includes more than 300 organizations from 59 countries, and it has delivered 26 catalytic grants, as well as technical support, to organizations in 14 countries that aim to reach 31 million people with mobile health information and services. : Die meisten Aktivitäten der mHealth Alliance sind auf Afrika und Asien fokussiert, obwohl wir uns auch schon in anderen Regionen der Welt, einschließlich Südamerika, engagiert haben. Die Allianz umfasst mehr als 300 Organisationen aus 59 Ländern. Sie hat Organisationen in 14 Ländern, die insgesamt 31 Millionen Menschen mit mobilen Gesundheitsinformationen und Dienstleistungen ausstatten wollen, mit 26 Stipendien und technischer Hilfe unterstützt.
Photo: Worker of the mHealth Alliance in India; Copyright: mHealth Alliance

The mHealth Alliance are focused in low- and middle-income countries like India; ©mHealth Alliance

How is the mHealth Alliance funded?

Mechael: The mHealth Alliance was launched by generous commitments from the UN Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Vodafone Foundation in 2009 to harness the power of wireless technologies to improve health outcomes in low and middle income countries. Soon after its launch, the mHealth Alliance welcomed Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) and Hewlett-Packard (HP) as Founding Partners. In 2010, a groundbreaking partnership was cemented with the Government of Norway, which enabled the mHealth Alliance to explore opportunities to promote the use of mobile technologies to support maternal, newborn, and child health and then to host and manage a catalytic grants mechanism supporting the scale-up of innovative uses of mobile technology to advance maternal and child health.

The mHealth Alliance also engages with donors on strategic engagements and currently works closely with Johnson & Johnson, Qualcomm Wireless Reach, Save the Children, and the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) on a variety of mHealth projects in low and middle income countries.
Photo: Hand is holding a colorful mobile phone; Copyright: mHealth Alliance

Even a simple mobile phone can help to save lives; ©mHealth Alliance

One of your initiatives is mHELP. What are the focus and the target of this project?

Mechael: The mHealth Expert Learning Program – mHELP – is an initiative of the mHealth Alliance aimed at building the expertise and capacity of global health stakeholders using mobile technology for health by connecting them directly to consultations, tools and a network of highly qualified experts in the field. mHELP seeks to address a persistent gap in the capacity of health programs and service implementers to design and deploy mobile health and electronic health (eHealth) in low- and middle-income countries. The services offered by mHELP include free tools and resources, an online question answering service, and more in-depth training, such as university-certified courses in mHealth and eHealth that will launch in 2014.

Through mHELP, the mHealth Alliance also engages in formal assessment and technical assistance projects by matching high-level experts, along with capacity building and technology partners, to the needs of specific mHealth implementations. Currently, the Alliance has several high-level engagements of this nature, including providing technical assistance to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation to establish a decision support and registration system in Tanzania for the elimination of mother to child transmission of HIV and providing technical assistance to the South African government to develop a national maternal and child mHealth implementation.

In which relationship are communication mobile technologies more important: patient to physician, or physician to physician?

Mechael: There is no way to quantify how important the communications are, mainly because they serve the same end goal. While an expectant mother in a troubled labor can easily call a local nurse midwife using her mobile phone, the midwife, when recognizing the situation is out of her comfort zone, can call a doctor at a health center. From there, providers can text message each other the woman’s estimated vitals, and so forth, or make additional referrals if her labor is too complicated for the small health center.
Photo: Mother with child and a mobile phone in Africa; Copyright: mHealth Alliance

Thanks to mHealth, even the poorest people have a chance for a good healthcare; ©mHealth Alliance

mHealth is primarily intended for rural or very remote regions. How useful are these technologies in a large city?

Mechael: No matter the urbanity of a population, mHealth has the potential to improve healthcare for millions. The technology, whether urban or rural, allows for enhanced patient monitoring and improved communication channels between patient and provider. Additionally, there may even be a need for such mHealth applications to urban populations, as poverty remains a significant barrier to health outcomes around the world. Now more than ever, the urban population is aging quickly and health needs are moving towards chronic disease management and slowly away from communicable diseases. Using mHealth with urban providers may decrease the disease burden among the urban poor.

What are the next projects of mHealth Alliance in the future?

Mechael: The road ahead should see more focused, country-level efforts to take mHealth projects to scale in a strategic, impactful and sustainable way. The Alliance has already begun this work directly in countries like Nigeria and India, and indirectly through the research, catalytic funding and community building activities described above. Increasingly, the Alliance will support mHealth at the country-level through mHELP, which is providing active convening and technical assistance in countries including South Africa and Tanzania.
Photo: Michalina Chrzanowska; Copyright: B. Frommann

©B. Frommann

The interview was conducted by Michalina Chrzanowska and translated from German by Elena O'Meara.