Harvard Business Review

How Mobile Phones Can Reverse-Innovate Health Care


Posted on Harvard Business Review: June 9, 2011 10:54 AM

Note: This blog was co-authored with Justin Chakma, an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto.

One of the notable differences between emerging markets and the developed world is the ubiquity of mobile phones in emerging markets. Citizens of poor countries already use mobile phones to make payments, transfer money, and otherwise fill in the voids created by a poor banking infrastructure. An even bigger opportunity for mobile services may lie in the realm of healthcare.

Many communities in emerging markets receive their front-line primary health care from community health care workers. In South Africa, for instance, 50 percent of all health care providers are community workers. But the training and certification of these workers is spotty—some are highly trained professionals; others have very rudimentary training. Mobile phones are proving useful in filling these institutional voids.

One pilot program allows community health workers to input clinical information into their mobile phones, access patient records, and receive recommendations for standard care. The Vodafone Social Investment Fund is funding this program; Vodafone's Group R&D and Vodacom, in collaboration with a local healthcare IT firm, GeoMed, manage it. Managers can identify services that are most regularly given in each district, which allows them to better allocate resources and prepare community workers. A platform allows providers to track and respond to common clinical performance issues associated with community health workers, as well.

The technology is helping to save money, standardize quality of care, and overcome institutional voids in medical training and irregular training standards. It has fed into the establishment of a "Vodafone common health platform," which can be licensed for use by health providers at a monthly service cost in any country. A parallel pilot project is ongoing in the UK. In fact, Vodafone spun out the work through the creation of a Mobile Health Unit in January 2010.

Businesses looking for ways to innovate in emerging markets—and to practice reverse innovation — should think about how they can fill institutional voids such as the lack of an entrepreneurial ecosystem, insufficient regulatory oversight, and unstandardized educational certification. The opportunities are rich, and growing — and mobile phones are often the medium for making that happen.

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.


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