Transforming Health with Mobile Technology

By Sharon D’Agostino (Orginally published on Impatient Optimist on December 20, 2012)

Twenty years ago this month, the first text message was sent through the airwaves. It was a simple message, “Happy Holidays,” from a test engineer at a telecommunication company to his colleague, but it was the beginning of a new wave of global communications.

Since then, text messages have been used to communicate all sorts of information. Most inspiring to me is how the technology once used to send a holiday wish is transforming the way women and families receive the information they need to be healthier–no matter where in the world they are.

The need for critical, basic health information is enormous, especially in low-resource settings, as evidenced by staggering statistics. Every year, 270,000 women die in childbirth and over 3 million babies do not survive their first month of life. These numbers are falling, though not fast enough, and one of the many reasons for the reduction is improved access to basic health information and services. The ubiquity of the mobile phone provides the perfect method to deliver critical health information, as more than a billion women in low- and middle-income countries have access to a mobile phone.

Getting appropriate health information to the people who need it–at the moment they need it most–is no small task. Even after the messaging is written, evaluated, tested and translated, getting it to an expectant girl or mother is a complex balance of timing, local knowledge and understanding of how women use their phones. These variables once seemed insurmountable, until committed partners joined forces to overcome barriers and change the health information landscape forever.

Johnson & Johnson and one of its companies, BabyCenter, are two of the founding partners of the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), which also includes the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United Nations Foundation and the mHealth Alliance. The work of MAMA leverages the power of a mobile phone to deliver timely health messages to new and expectant mothers, especially in places where access to health information is limited. By entering an estimated due date or birth date, pregnant girls or women receive text and voice messages timed to their stage of pregnancy or the age of the baby. Globally, MAMA offers free adaptable messages that have been downloaded to more than 100 organizations across 40 countries, tailoring them to meet the needs of women in their communities.

This year, another set of messages have been created to meet the unique needs of HIV positive pregnant women. mothers2mothers, a partner organization with extensive knowledge, contributed to the development of specialized messages on when to take antiretroviral medicines, how to breastfeed  and how to navigate challenging cultural situations that may keep women from accessing care for themselves and their babies.

We also recognize that sometimes the phone that new and expectant mothers can access is not their own–they may share it with a husband or mother-in-law who may not be supportive of the new or expectant mom having access to this information. Alongside a team of health advisors, our colleagues at BabyCenter are in the process of creating messages geared towards these family members so that husbands and mothers-in-law can also receive health information via text message to support the expectant mom’s health.

At the mHealth summit in Washington, D.C. this month, thousands of people representing the private sector, NGO’s, governments and multi-lateral organizations convened to learn how to expand on the dynamic progress that has been made in delivering health information through mobile phones. The conversations were hopeful, creative and inspiring–every new connection and new partnership brings new possibilities to empower women and save lives.

I believe that moms hold the key to a healthy future for all. If knowledge is power, then giving every mother the power of good health can be a simple text message away.

Happy Holidays….and Good Health!


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