Geeks and global health talk at SXSW

Garth Moore, ONE’s US new media deputy director, is blogging live from SXSW Interactive, a five-day event full of presentations from the brightest minds in emerging technology.

mHealth whiteboard

mHealth’s whiteboard of their panel discussion at SXSW. Photo courtesy of Ogilvy
Imagine being a health worker in a rural Malawi clinic, treating patients and then having to walk 50 miles back and forth every week just to file your reports from the field. Now, imagine having mobile technology that allows you to file your reports with your mobile phone, giving you more time to treat patients, even doubling the number of tuberculosis treatments you can give in your area.

This was one of stories shared during the “Mobile Health in Africa: What Can We Learn?” panel at South By Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, TX this past weekend. Much in the same vein as last November’s mHealth Summit in DC, the panel provided tech geeks, policy people and self-ascribed “global health junkies” the opportunity to learn more about the various mobile technologies being piloted to change how health treatments are administered and recorded. Medic Mobile Executive Director Josh Nesbit told the clinic story as an example of how mobile tech can help health workers in places like Malawi that, as he stated, “has better phone signal than in Palo Alto, CA.”

Other examples of mHealth tech tools were equally inspiring: SMS-based training for health workers in villages and the field; a lens-free blood and tissue slide scanner that uses the camera on a mobile phone; and urine test strips that use text technology to monitor and track patient medicine records. These strips offer an incentive for patients to keep reporting their medication intake: free minutes for their mobile phone.

HopePhones, the nationwide mobile phone recycling campaign that provides mobile phones for clinics and health care workers in the developing world, especially excited the audience. Given that the annual phone replacement rate in Africa is 1 to 2 percent, it means donated phones are especially important and always welcome.

The panel also cautioned against the “shiny object” promise of mobile technology. Dr. Patricia Mechael, who directs mobile strategic for Columbia University’s Earth Institutes, said techies and health officials that simplicity in design should inform the urgency of getting the work into the field.

Nesbit also noted mHealth must create tools that emphasize “actions over stats.” He said that while data gathering is important, people “don’t want to be considered as data.” -– the focus for building any mobile tools should be making a direct impact on communities’ health.