Making magic happen in healthcare

December 12, 2013 in Medical Technology

Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate whose Grameen Movement opened up his native Bangladesh to the power of the cellphone, urged his mHealth Summit audience Dec. 10 to think of the smartphone as a modern-day Aladdin’s lamp: Touch it, and all sorts of magic can happen.

While initially designed as a tool to empower women in rural communities and reduce poverty, the cellphone is now a powerful tool with its own “digital genie,” he said. “The possibilities are enormous.”

As an example, Yunus identified the issue of risky pregnancies, which affects 11 percent of all pregnancies in Bangladesh and creates similar concerns throughout the world. The problem, he said, is that many women in Bangladesh hide their pregnancies, so they aren’t getting proper pre-natal information and they don’t know if they and their unborn child could be in danger.

To solve that problem, Yunus said Grameen is working with Intel to develop an ultrasound app that enables women with smartphones to conduct their own tests, send the results to a doctor and communicate with that doctor privately and securely.

Yunus, whose foundation is now developing mHealth and other projects throughout the world – including the United States – was one of two keynote speakers on stage Dec. 10 at the mHealth Summit in National Harbor, Md.. And while he represented the face of mHealth in third-world and developing nations, Astrid Krag, Denmark’s Minister of Health, offered her take on mHealth in the developed world.

[See also: Mobile phones to play key role in healthcare.]

Krag, whose nation is often held up as one of the mHealth pioneers in Europe, said Denmark is embarking on a major initiative to reconfigure its healthcare system, which now accounts for about 11 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. This includes a National Action Plan launched in 2012 to upgrade the nation’s 16 major hospitals, to the tune of $7 billion over the next decade, and create a health technology product innovation center.

But, she pointed out, “we aren’t building bigger and better hospitals to hospitalize more people.”

At the core of that plan, Krag said, is a newfound emphasis on patient engagement – and on mHealth to engage those patients. This, in turn, will lead to healthier lifestyles, reduced medical expenses, and fewer hospital stays.

“The Danish government has made patient empowerment the backbone of future healthcare,” she said.

Among the initiatives is a mandate that everyone in the nation of 5.5 million with certain diseases or chronic conditions be treated by telemedicine. One such condition is ulcers; Krag said mHealth tools and services could be used to identify, treat and reduce the chance of ulcers, potentially saving $3 billion a year in medical costs.

[See also: Nurses using smartphones to fill IT gaps.]

Another project, Krag said, involves giving iPads to children and young adults diagnosed with schizophrenia and placing them on a treatment plan that involves communication with a doctor once a week via the tablet. As an added benefit, she said, the patients are introduced to a social network that enables them to help manage their condition. The same treatment plan is now being considered for psychiatry screenings.

Denmark’s goal, Krag said, is to include the patient in healthcare, giving him or her more control over healthcare choices and more responsibility to make proper health decisions.

“Healthcare will never be the same again once we’ve finished,” she predicted.

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