Getting More Than a Buzz out of mHealth

November 11, 2010

The mHealth Summit 2010 concluded yesterday in Washington, D.C., after three days of focusing on mobile technologies for health. What’s all the buzz about? (And I don’t mean from the 2000 mobile phones on vibrate mode at the conference center.)I couldn’t attend the summit, so I caught snatches of it from Twitter, by speaking with attendees, and by reading what I could get my hands on via the internet. Related materials included high level endorsements of mobile technologies for health, call outs for “successful” public-private partnerships for mHealth programs, discussions about mHealth interventions and their potential impact on health outcomes and of course, the usual announcements of further resources for development of new technologies (here, here) and here.

Neil Thomas/IRIN
What piqued my interest was a “Super Session” on what we've learned so far about using mobile technologies for health. A couple of different renditions (here and here) of the list of "top 10 lessons learned" emerged in the blogosphere, on Twitter, and from friends who were in the audience for this session. They vary slightly in how they capture these lessons, but one appeared prominently on all of the different lists that I found: mHealth Interventions Need to be Evaluated.It’s the perfect time to create a Learning Agenda for mHealthGiven that we seem to be on the brink of a massive expansion of the use of mobile technologies for health, taking this evaluation lesson forward will require some careful thinking about what we really want to know about mHealth to use the resources we have effectively. As a start, here are a few ideas for next steps:
  1. Create a Learning Agenda to evaluate the impact and outcomes (i.e. did the mHealth intervention work or not) of interventions, AND an implementation research agenda that allows us to assess the HOW and WHY of interventions. Bill Gates endorsed mHealth technologies as a critical health tool, but flagged this point for summit participants in his speech, best captured in David Olson’s blog:
    “..he cautioned that these technologies are very much dependent on local variables (the quality of health personnel and infrastructure, for example) and that “It will be easy to fool yourself into thinking that something that works in one place will work equally well in another.” He believes that the greatest mHealth innovation will come not in the poor countries and not in rich countries but in middle-income countries like Brazil, China and India.”
  2. Determine who should lead the development of this Learning Agenda to distill the list of research questions with a range of stakeholders—investors, researchers, program implementers, and USERS (after all they are the key to how an mHealth technology gets used effectively). Following this, identify and vet study designs, select research methods and ensure that baseline data are collected, before programs are launched.
  3. Establish a hub for sharing information about program implementation and program assessment. I note that the mHealth Alliance has created a HUB that could play this role. There is a lot of information posted on this website about programs and research, and this is going to increase in volume with the buzz around mHealth. But a smart, information technology driven, knowledge management initiative that could distill and disseminate lessons learned from program implementation and from evaluations (rather than just list them) would be an enormous contribution to development practice in real time!
Comment on this post with ideas for how a Learning Agenda could be created and/or specific questions we need to ask about using mobile technologies to enhance the effective delivery of health services for different health priorities.One final note: I’m disappointed with video capability of the tech savvy mHealth summit organizers. If you didn’t catch a live webcast of a session, you’ve missed it. I sent in a request/query to find out if videos have been archived. No response yet. If I find out, I will update this blog post.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.