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Banking on mobile phones for scaling up health services

25 November 2013

OneWorld South Asia

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BBC Media Action’s policy briefing reveals how mobile phones could lead to sustainable and scalable business model in the healthcare segment that can reach millions.

New Delhi: BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity, on Friday released in India a policy briefing on mobile health (mHealth) ‘Health on the move: Can mobile phones save lives’.

It was launched in New Delhi by NK Singh, MP Rajya Sabha and Girindre Beeharry, Country Head, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, India. The policy briefing focuses on how one of the greatest engines of innovation in the 21st century – the mobile phone – offers important opportunities for saving lives.

Commenting on the significance of the document, Yvonne MacPherson, Executive Director, BBC Media Action, USA said, “The policy briefing ‘Health on the move: Can mobile phones save lives?’ shares the learnings of our large scale mHealth solutions in India and is intended for those who are either using or considering using mobiles to achieve bold health outcomes. With its emphasis on designing for scale and sustainability, we hope that policy makers, governments, donor organisations, NGOs, telecom companies and technologists will find it a useful complement to this nascent yet rapidly developing field.”

Although there is a proliferation of mobile health (mHealth) projects in the developing world, most succumb to 'Pilot-itis’ - the inability to scale. The policy briefing reveals that in order to sustainably scale mHealth innovations it is crucial to place the ‘user’ at the centre of the design process, adopt appropriate technology, and forge strategic and mutually beneficial public-private partnerships based on a sound business model.

“The ability to move beyond ‘pilot-itis’ relies on the use of appropriate technologies, appropriate partners and appropriate business models which are based on ground realities. It is a balancing act between using existing technologies that can save lives today versus waiting for super technologies that will become ubiquitous in the future,” said Siddhartha Swarup, Director, Family Health Programs, BBC Media Action, India.

The policy briefing draws on BBC Media Action’s direct experience in Bihar, a state where 83% of women have access to mobile phones, but only 9% have ever sent an SMS. Recognizing limitations faced by mobile phone users in Bihar, such as low literacy rates, BBC Media Action has used Interactive Voice Response (IVR) to make audio content accessible from any mobile phone via a simple voice call. BBC Media Action developed mHealth services ‘Mobile Academy’ and ‘Mobile Kunji’ to equip and train community health workers to communicate life-saving maternal and child health information, and ‘Kilkari’ to provide families with weekly audio health information linked to a woman’s stage of pregnancy or child’s age.

Thanks to strategic partnership with six leading mobile service operators, these mHealth services are available to base of the pyramid subscribers at subsidised rates.

Sara Chamberlain, Head of ICT, BBC Media Action India says, “Public private partnerships are essential to scale, affordability and sustainability. We are able to make life-saving health content available to the majority of mobile phone subscribers in Bihar – thanks to a significant subsidy from the mobile industry. Airtel, BSNL, Idea, TATA, Reliance and Vodafone have reduced the standard commercial IVR tariff by 90%. The operators are willing to make this subsidy because they’re still covering their network costs – and they recognize the value in forging meaningful, long-term relationships with rural subscribers.”

Taking a cue from the success of the programme in Bihar, the state governments of Odisha and Uttar Pradesh are collaborating with BBC Media Action to launch the mHealth services in their respective states.

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