Mobile phone health apps could improve care in developing countries

healthcare1Healthcare in developing countries could get a shot in the arm from mobile health apps being developed by startups, according the executive director of the mHealth Alliance.

David Aylward, who is being named head of the alliance today, said in an interview that the personal healthcare monitoring apps being developed for the iPhone and other smart phones could ultimately prove useful in improving healthcare in developing nations.

“It’s going to take time to get the apps on phones like the iPhone in developing countries, but maybe not as long as you think,” he said. “Even in the poorest parts of the poorest countries, you can find mobile phones.”

Lots of companies are vying to get U.S. consumers for these services, but Aylward said that makers of apps often fail to consider overseas markets, where the competition might be slimmer.

One new company that just announced a mobile healthcare app is Ringful, which demonstrated its technology at the DEMOfall 09 conference last week. The idea is for caregivers to distribute information to patients via the phone and to collect healthcare data that can be analyzed by the caregivers.

The mHealth Alliance in Washington, D.C., is a partnership of the UN Foundation, the Vodafone Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Its mission is to support and advance mobile health initiatives in the developing world. The alliance was announced in February at the GSM World Mobile Conference. The goal is to generate collaboration between nonprofit, government and private parties in the interests of global health. Right now, most of the projects funded are in pilot stage.

At the core of the alliance is the notion that most people in the developed and developing countries have cell phones now. If you can deliver healthcare through those phones, you can keep people out of hospitals and thereby reduce overall healthcare costs. Since 80 percent of healthcare costs are due to chronic illnesses that send people to the hospital, much of the effort in saving money is to keep people at home and to treat them there, as noted in our recent piece on healthcare and technology.

“The apps that are being developed for the first world are the kind we’re interested in for the developing world,” he said. “We have apps that are collecting data. What hasn’t happened so far is integrating the data with the healthcare system.”

Aylward said that one of his missions will be to introduce startups with interesting mobile healthcare solutions to big carriers that can help the technology spread widely. Since 2006, the UN Foundation and the Vodafone Foundation have made investments in technology to support global health goals. In that respect, Aylward said that the mHealth alliance is like an angel investor. It can foster startups and introduce them around and then get them moving toward full-scale deployment, Aylward said. Thanks to support from Qualcomm, Aylward said 21 mHealth projects will be highlighted at the upcoming CTIA Wireless IT and Entertainment conference in San Diego, Calif.

VC-backed companies could benefit from getting information from masses of people on mobile phones in developing countries. For instance, companies could collect data on how people respond to drug treatments. That data could be valuable to drug makers. Also, companies could use mobile phones to ensure that drugs that are reaching people in developing countries are authentic, not counterfeit, and have not been tampered with en route.

One of the success stories is EpiSurveyor, which made software for gathering healthcare data about spreading illnesses via mobile phones. It is being used by health ministries in 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In the past, it took months to find out what kinds of diseases were spreading in local countries. Now it’s nearly instantaneous.

“It’s simple and straightforward but it radically changes the reporting of infectious diseases,” Ayalward said.