Vodafone: Not when but how for wireless health

By: Brian Dolan | Dec 1, 2009        

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Vodafone Group CEO Vittorio Colao“The question is not whether governments should use mobile health,” Vodafone Group CEO Vittorio Colao declared, “it is how” they should use it. Colao’s keynote presentation kicked off Informa’s Mobile Healthcare Summit here in London.

Vodafone group counts more than 315 million people as its wireless customers, which includes Vodafone subsidiaries all around the world. Vodafone also owns a substantial stake in U.S. carrier Verizon Wireless.

“I personally believe that the mobile phone has a very siginifcant role to play  in the provision of healthcare,” Colao continued. He explained that key use cases for mobile in healthcare include: the simplification of clinical work flows, statistical analysis of record keeping, supporting the chronically ill at home as well as reaching under resourced and geographically dispersed communities.

In the short term, Coloa said that many mobile health services can be created without having to develop new technology. More often than not we think about mobile health as very complex systems, which may be right for developed markets, but in general technology is not the problem. For developing markets especially, many pilots have shown the power of mobile healthcare, Colao said, but unfortunately there has been little success in scaling these projects. Vodafone Group recently established new mobile healthcare unit that aims to work with medical organizations, governments and pharmaceutical companies to fully understand what the needs are.

“We want to start listening to governments and listening to pharmaceuticals to understand what the needs are. It is clear that there is a pressing need for a reevaluation for how we deliver health services in the coming year,” Colao said. “It is also clear to us that mobile technology has a role to play in how we … provide better service and improve healthcare for those in mature — and more importantly — in developing markets.”

Here are seven use cases and associated pilots that Coloa highlighted:

SMS appointment reminders: Colao shared a number of  on case studies that Vodafone Group has conducted recently starting with the doctor appointments reminder service Vodafone conducted with the Imperial College in London. The text message reminders reduced the number of missed appointments by around 30 percent. Colao said such a service extrapolated across the UK would equate to hundreds of millions of pounds saved.

Tracking medication availability: In partnership with pharmaceutical company Novartis, Vodafone has created a program in Tanzania called SMS for Life, which covers some 135 villages. The program went live in September, but it allows health workers to keep track of and send reports on supply and demand for medications, especially for malaria. Coloa said the system already has a 97 percent compliance rate with workers and it is a “simple application which has an incredible impact in terms of saving lives.”

Diabetes remote management with T+ Medical: “Our mobile technology can help to maintain their health outside the hospital environment, which reduces costs and improves quality of life for the individuals. Our work with a UK-based company T+ which uses technology to monitor longterm conditions like diabetes — reduces cost in managing patients. If we provided that same type of service on nationwide basis, the 2 million UK diabetes sufferers would help us save some 2 billion pounds each year.”

Mobile tech for clinical trials: Mobile technologies can also reduce the exorbitant costs associated with clinical trials, Coloa said. Vodafone Group is currently working with a pharmaceutical company to improve efficiency of their clinical trial reports. These reports were paper based before, but now people with cancer participating in one clinical trial are using mobile phone based journals to track their degree of pain, numbness in their extremities and other bits of health information that are relevant to the trial. On the backend, clinicians can tune into a live dashboard of the aggregate patient data.

Mobile tech can reduce admin costs in emerging markets: In developing markets where there is a shortage of resources, the lack of trained medical staff is one of biggest challenges, Coloa said. Mobile can reduce costs by automating administrative processes, which can save up to 40 percent on admin costs, Coloa said. Vodafone Group has worked through its South African subsidiary Vodacom on its Community Healthcare Worker Project. Coloa said the project has both saved money for healthcare workers and has also extended their ability to deliver quality care. After all, less time spent on admin means more time to dedicate to patients.

Public health and data collection: Coloa noted that in developing markets accurately recording and tracking diseases is a key process for shaping government policy. Coloa pointed to the avian flu and the swine flu as prime examples of cases where accurate public health data is critical. The Vodafone Foundation and UN Foundation has worked with Episurveyor to equip health workers in more than 20 sub-Saharan African countries with mobile devices with the Episurveyor software installed. The mobile app enables workers to make quicker, better and much more informed responses, Coloa said. It also leads to much more informed policy making.

SMS-enabled education and awareness: The mobile channel is also a key one for public health education and disease awareness, especially for sexually transmitted diseases, Colao said. In Uganda, Vodafone helped conduct a text message based education and awareness program that increased the number of people willing to take HIV tests by 40 percent. Coloa said it was just another example of a simple technology leveraged to save lives.