SE Asia mobile phone project is a model for underserved Americans

Brace yourselves. I'm about to talk about mobile healthcare in developing countries, yet again. I sincerely hope you find this topic as interesting as I do, and that you don't think I'm just showing guilt toward the less fortunate, thousands of miles from our comfortable lives here in America. Because people are doing some amazing things that really could to be replicated here to reach, say, poor, uninsured, inner-city populations.

Several such projects are on display at the American Medical Informatics Association annual symposium, going on through Wednesday in San Francisco. In the Mekong River Basin--a region that encompasses 285 million people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and part of China--Internet access is rare. Under the repressive military regime in Myanmar, only 0.1 percent of the population can get online, according to Dr. Taha Kass-Hout, advisor on global public health and informatics for a project known as Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters (InSTEDD). But mobile phones are readily available and SMS is close to ubiquitous for those who have handsets.

So InSTEDD is working with Mekong Basin Disease Surveillance, a program encompassing health ministries in all six countries, to disseminate public health and disease management information to the masses via text messaging and empower the citizenry to report on possible outbreaks of infectious diseases. "We get information from rural areas and cities and vice-versa," Kass-Hout says. Plus, the program is starting to collect data on chronic diseases, something that's sorely lacking in Southeast Asia, according to Kass-Hout.

If you saw the news about the health fair in New Orleans over the weekend that found advanced chronic diseases in dozens of people who had no access to preventive care, you can see how useful such a system would be in America. - Neil