WORLD: E-health is C'wealth's new agenda

Association of 53 independent nations seeks to translate proliferation of mobile phone technology into improved health care services

The Times of India
Saturday, May 17, 2008

By Rashmee Roshan Lall

LONDON --- The 53-nation Commonwealth launches world's first international e-health initiative across countries and continents on Sunday in an attempt to harness its members' evidentially extraordinary appetite for hi-tech with health-friendly governance.

Ernest Massiah, head of health at the London-headquartered Commonwealth secretariat, which organises an annual health ministers' meeting in Geneva, said the e-health focus could be a revolution in the making, potentially offering fast-track development opportunities to poor people spread across the Commonwealth.

India, he said, could provide crucial hands-on knowledge because "health workers in some parts (of India) are even now, sending text messages to the central authorities with key epidemiological data".

The Commonwealth's new 'big idea' is all about how to translate "the amazing diffusion of new technology, such as the mobile phone" into the field of health, where most member-countries significantly lag behind the developed western world.

E-health is a leap of faith for the Commonwealth, which has normally focused its annual health meetings on safer subjects such as last year's non-communicable diseases.

Massiah, en route to Geneva for the annual conference, which will be attended by India and other countries, insisted the Commonwealth had to acknowledge a basic fact, namely that the growth rate of internet access is faster than the global average within its member states. "There are six billion people on the planet and three billion cellphones. It is unprecedented and the fastest rate of technology-take-up is in the Commonwealth," said Massiah.

E-health, therefore, is an idea whose time the Commonwealth now deems to have come. In a bullish statement of intent, the association, often derided as a fuddy neo-imperial talking shop, says the e-health initiative "addresses the reality that the whole world is becoming digitalised -- not just the wealthy, developed world. And we had better all help each other to get on board".

In this, says Massiah, India and its universally-acknowledged techie skills can play a significant role. Sunday's conference, he says, will boldly seek new south-south cooperation in the health sector. In lay language that means, a Commonwealth country short of a technologically-competent health professional will in the first instance henceforth tap member-nations' capability, such as that of India rather than look to the US or Europe.

Public health experts believe that will be a revolution of sorts, in giving the old-empire vestiges of the Commonwealth confidence to rethink their place in the new digital world. Massiah insists the Commonwealth's e-health venture is well-judged. Africa, he points out, has had, in the past five years, the fastest-growing mobile phone market in the world – in fact, twice as fast as the global market.

Officials say that four years ago, Africa became the first continent on the planet to have more mobile phones than landline users and "mobile phones now make up 90% of telephone subscriptions in Africa... once the boast of technologically sophisticated nations such as Finland, the birthplace of Nokia. Now we are talking about countries, whose citizens are some of the poorest, most deprived on earth".

Accordingly, says Massiah, mobile phones can henceforth not just be a passport out of poverty but a guarantor of good health because "they can be used to help people living in remote, inaccessible areas get medical advice".

Existing examples of Commonwealth moves towards electronically-enabled health measures include a rural helpline in Bangladesh called 'Mobile Ladies', which sees doughty matrons traipse from house to house hearing villagers' problems and helping find answers. Almost half the queries pertain to health.