The battle to bring reliable healthcare to the developing parts of the world is still very much an unfinished one. But now, thanks to modern, mobile-focused technologies, the industrializing world has new, promising tools at its disposal for addressing the coverage gap that exists between nations and sometimes between territories within nations.

The Problem Being Tackled

To begin with, there are two numbers to keep in mind. Rather, two ratios:

  • There are more mobile phone subscriptions than there are human beings on planet earth.
  • In some “third world” countries, the ratio of healthcare workers to civilians can be as high as 1 to 10,000.

The first ratio is, in many ways we’ll see in a moment, helping us to address the second. Too little healthcare coverage and professional expertise for too many civilians is one problem, but another has been the general lack of communication that could help these countries organize even their limited resources and personnel to greater effect.

The idea, simply, is to leverage the (as of 2014) 90 percent penetration rate of mobile technology and use it to bring a better kind of healthcare to developing countries with little or no existing medical infrastructure to speak of.

Practical Examples of How to Put Mobile Tech to Work in Healthcare

How’s this going to happen? It might sound deceptively simple, like throwing cell phones at a problem. But it’s far more than that. Think of the advantages for a nation if it had the opportunity to skip over several technology iterations that seemed to introduce more headaches than they remedied. Think insurance bureaucracy and faxes. Think literal paperwork and waiting for test results in the mail.

Bringing mobile technologies to the developing world is going to revolutionize how healthcare is administered, from the ground up, including how information is distributed to and exchanged with the population, and with patients, across both urban and rural areas, no wires required.

It also stands a good chance of helping us fight back against stubborn social and medical conditions like malnutrition and communicable diseases, as it did in Uganda, where SMS messages helped researchers study patterns of, and eventually meaningfully address, malnutrition. In Kenya and India, mobile phones help expecting mothers take their pre-natal medications on a regular schedule and check in for the best available parenting guidance. In some places on earth, these are the first generations receiving modern healthcare in this fashion.

Some mobile apps even help identify fake medications on the spot, which can be life-saving in countries without strong checks against counterfeit medications flooding the market.

On an institutional level, the healthcare apparatus and delivery mechanisms in these countries is getting a mobile-first streamlining that could soon put some healthcare systems even in America to shame. Mobile technology is, quite simply, reinventing how “younger” countries think about and administer healthcare, from the ground up.

Countries Demonstrate How to “Think Differently” About Healthcare

“Going paperless” has been a pipe-dream for a long time in the industrialized world, and our organizational and security technologies seem to have nearly reached the point where it’s possible. But by thinking mobile-first and going paperless at the same time, some countries are realizing the far higher accuracy and far lower likelihood of lost and misfiled records when they’re stored digitally and exchanged over secure online messaging systems, versus lossy paper records.

This mobile-first mentality has the potential to quite literally save lives by cutting down on the time required to receive the results of critical tests. It’s also been found to be a corruption-fighting measure as well, as patients and citizens in remoter areas now have a way to report questionable behavior or unsound medical practices to the authorities no matter where in the country they are.

Even in some of the more thoroughly developed nations of the world, healthcare is thought of as something somehow separate from us. A “product” to be “purchased.” Because a considerable portion of the western world has grown up used to the idea of healthcare as a commodity, many of us don’t feel “close to” our bodies.

But developing countries have a chance now to think about healthcare in a way many westerners are only now beginning to: holistically, and using intuitive, readily available digital and mobile tools to get and stay proactive about our health. Miniaturized technologies and digital communication means modern patients even in underserved, remote parts of the world can track their symptoms with confidence and check in with their doctors remotely to get an update or seek out guidance for a new development.

Communicating quickly and wirelessly also means the punishingly low doctor to patient ratio in some of these countries could be stretched a little further. For that matter, distance learning facilitated by mobile technology could help train new nurses and doctors more quickly, as it has elsewhere.

Mobile technology is growing extremely quickly in developing countries, and the U.N. has committed itself to bringing the internet to the farthest corners of the globe by 2020, not just because it’s growing in the West, but also because it’s delivering a quality of life that wasn’t possible before. Some of the sensors and other technologies in our phones and watches can help crowdsource reliable weather information across an area using shared barometric data or even detect the early signs of a stroke.

The point is, there is technology currently available on the consumer level that stands a good chance of reinventing how westerners think about their own health and how they seek out care from professionals. Our regulations and laws, plus our digital infrastructure, all need to catch up a little bit in the meantime, but for right now, the developing world offers a great look at the many opportunities ahead of us when we “think different” about healthcare.

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