Nonprofit organisation HIVSA, supported by the Elton John Aids Foundation, has developed a new cellphone service giving all South Africans access to relevant, up-to-date information on various health topics including HIV, tuberculosis (TB), pregnancy and baby health.
HIVSA’s new mobile health (mHealth) initiative, hi4LIFE, will further promote the organisation’s mission to develop and implement health-focused initiatives for individuals affected by HIV/Aids.
“We believe there are great benefits to integrating primary healthcare and electronic medical systems into mHealth services,” says hi4LIFE programme manager Rob Allen. “Our vision is for everyone, including healthcare profes- sionals, to have private access to relevant, up-to-date, accurate information on any health subject.”
Hi4LIFE will be a living, growing information source that is available anytime, anywhere and translated into a number of local languages, including Zulu, Sotho, Tsonga and Afrikaans.
Access to HIVSA’s hi4LIFE mHealth services is available through a publicised telephone number, which directs the caller through various information menus, through which a topic of interest can be selected. The caller will then receive a set of SMSes on the selected topic.
“Alternatively, [the caller] can go to mobile optimised websites (designed for cellphone compatibility), like mama.mobi or baby.mobi, where he or she can access instant information on specific areas of concern, ask questions or submit a comment,” says Allen, adding that hi4LIFE is currently developing voice lines and Mxit applications as well.
The added benefit of using a free instant messaging application, such as Mxit, is that you can access information privately, says Allen.
As part of hi4LIFE’s pilot project, Allen and his team initially targeted a few districts with a traditional marketing and community-focused approach. “What we are learning is that targeting the users with advertising directly on their phones is a more successful and effective route,” says Allen.
However, while the response to the pilot initiative has been positive, there are still cost concerns. “Ideally, we would want mobile network operators to make hi4LIFE free for the end-user,” he says. Allen believes this is possible through the development of public and private strategic partnerships.
Most of the challenges facing hi4LIFE involves costs, both for the provider and the user, he says. In South Africa, there has been a history of people being misinformed about mobile phone service costs, which has caused some wariness.
“Many people still believe that accessing the Internet via their mobile phone costs more than it actually does [and] the cost of sending SMSes to individuals makes it financially unattractive and impossible to scale up SMS push messaging services,” he says.
“In South Africa, there are few opportunities to provide free-to-user cellphone-based services. Free services are immensely popular, as one would expect. Any cost to a user is a severe barrier to user uptake.”
Allen stresses that the cost aspect of mHealth service provision needs to be debated and believes that mHealth services should be available at national level to achieve maximum coverage.
Mobile phones have become a major channel for information in South Africa. HIVSA reports that more households own a mobile phone than a radio, which means that SMSs, the Internet and instant messaging services can be used for large-scale health information and education applications.
Further, Allen mentions that there are growth opportunities for service providers in making these services more interactive and user-friendly. He believes mHealth can be used as a direct marketing and advertising platform, ultimately achieving health outcomes for everyone in the country.
“Access to vital health information and education is our primary focus, but we are also continually assessing how we can link mobile phone sup- port to other programmes,” he says.
South Africa Leading the Way
“Africa suffers more than 24% of the global burden of disease, but has an average of only two doctors per 10 000 people. This means that providing the majority of people in Africa with healthcare is a major challenge,” says director of the Mobile Health Africa 2012 conference Andrea Monteiro.
She says the evolution of mHealth services in Africa is enabling the improvement of healthcare infrastructure.
Monteiro highlights Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Uganda as some of the countries to keep an eye on for more sustainable and scalable mHealth programmes, but believes South Africa is leading the way in launching such services.