Realizing mobile health's potential--in Rwanda

By some estimates, mobile phones are in the hands of more than half the world's population, including hundreds of millions of people who never had access to land lines. People in international development call it the "leapfrog" strategy: Skipping the early and intermediate stages of something--in this case, telecommunications--and going right to the most modern technology.

Well, the same thing that has happened with telephone service in developing countries is starting to take place in healthcare. Huge swaths of humanity across Asia, South America and Africa that never before had access to even the most basic medical care now are moving to the forefront of mobile health.

A post on ZDNet UK's Tech For Change blog highlights a program in Rwanda, a country best known on these shores for a 1994 campaign of genocide, dramatized in the 2004 Oscar-nominated film, Hotel Rwanda. Today, Rwanda aims to become a center of technology and a model for mobile-enabled public health efforts.

I've never been to Rwanda, or any other parts of Central Africa, but I've seen this "leapfrog" phenomenon in action and met many of the people behind the country's m-health programs. On a trip to Senegal in 2005, I was taken to a farm outside the village of Mboro, some 100 miles outside the capital city, Dakar. Out there, in the middle of nowhere, cell phones worked perfectly.

Last summer, I was one of just 11 journalists worldwide to attend Making the eHealth Connection, a series of international conferences put on by the Rockefeller Foundation to discuss how technology could improve healthcare in the developing world. There, some of the leading minds in health IT developed an action plan. The first application of the plan is a program supported by the United Nations Foundation and the UK-based Vodafone Foundation to bring simple healthcare technologies to the vast network of mobile phones--just like what's happening in Rwanda.

Keep an eye on this effort. The U.S. might just learn a thing or two. - Neil