[Editors Note: The mHealth Summit is the largest annual gathering dedicated to mHealth in the world and convenes a global group of researchers, health professionals & industry. As a media partner for the Summit (Twitter: #mHS11), iMedicalApps will be presenting an exclusive series of interviews with keynote and prominent speakers between now and the December meeting titled “mHealth Leaders Speak to iMedicalApps”.]

Patty Mechael has been actively involved in the field of international health for 15 years with field experience in over 30 countries and was recently named Executive Director of the mHealth Alliance, a key organization linking and facilitating efforts to expand mobile health across the world in low and middle income countries.

The mHealth Alliance is an important part of the conference and is actually one of the three “Organizing Partners” of the meeting (along with HIMSS and the NIH). As such, the mHealth Alliance is not just participating in the meeting but organizing sessions around global mHealth. In fact this, as Patty Mechael explained, is one of the unique aspects of the Summit. It is the only meeting where the the four legs of mHealth are represented in the program: research, policy, business, and technology – with representation of views and experiences from both developed and developing countries.

Read more to learn how the mHealth Alliance is helping less wealthy countries and organizations develop sustainable and scalable models of mobile health where the medical infrastructure is, at best, incomplete.

[Note: Questions are in bold and the answers are below]

Why are you participating in the mHealth Summit?

For us, the Summit represents an important platform for networking among and with our stakeholders, sharing ideas and profiling the work that they are doing. Our efforts with  the Summit are to make sure that the perspectives of those working within the Global South are featured throughout the Summit program.

What do you hope to get out of the Summit?

The Summit is a wonderful learning opportunity and a platform for connecting groups that normally don’t get to interact with each other.  In addition, we will be convening a series of special sessions that the Alliance is taking a lead on related to the work that we are doing with national stakeholders, on participatory design, and monitoring and evaluation.  There has been a big push in the last year for countries to develop national mobile health strategy as part of their larger eHealth strategy. We want to bring together those stakeholders to share what has worked and how it has worked in different settings, in countries like the Phillipiines, South Africa, Kenya and Bangladesh. How do we take the collective wisdom and start to learn about the national level strategic planning processes?

One of the other events we are engaging in is around participatory design, along with Frog Design and UNICEF. The question is what is the role of design in mHealth? Not just in the applications themselves but also in program design. Applying a design approach can help set the health strategies and the selection of the best mHealth tools out there to solve specific problems.

We are also working on a research and evaluation session with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the World Health Organization. A major gap area in mHealth is in impact evaluation. How do we know what works, why it works? There have been a number of collective efforts in the past year, some hosted by NIH, another meetingat the Rockefeller Foundation Estate in Italy to look at how do we become more strategic in the way we approach evaluation of mobile health to make sure the investments we make are the most informed.

We are also doing a couple of awards during the Summit. One is the “Top 11 Innovators of 2011”, co-chairing this award with the Rockefeller Foundation. We are accepting nominations now and will be going through public voting in November and then a final judging panel. We also have a partnership with the Norwegian government to issue catalytic grants to innovative mHealth programs that have a sustainable business model that is driving them.

Could you please share a few thoughts on the role of mHealth in global health?

The mHealth Alliance is actually currently going through a major strategic planning process. We have been actively engaged in global mHealth for two years and are now at an inflection point. A critical aspect of this strategy will be to facilitate the mainstreaming of mHealth into global health activities at community, district, national, and international levels. On Tuesday morning at the Summit, we are launching our 2012 mHealth Alliance Strategy publicly. At the moment we are engaging in internal development and will be vetting externally, via webinar and on-line discussions to engage the larger global mHealth community.

We have a working relationship with the World Health Organization (WHO) over the next three years building capacity in evaluating the impact of the mobile health programs. That is their core strength, they leverage impact analysis for policy making. It has been hard for anybody to drive the policy development without the evidence.

One of the things that has been challenging, and one of the places where work to convene national stakeholder comes into play, is that you have to start with the desire to align technology with health priorities. Otherwise, it is just technology for technology’s sake. I can tell you we have ten year’s experience with this – where there is a lot of technology for the sake of technology, where it is a really good idea but is not having an additive effect on health outcomes or health system strengthening. This is because it is not designed to be interoperable, standardized and directly linked to a set of health targets.

It seems there is a mHealth conference somewhere every other week. What do you believe sets the mHealth Summit apart?

One of the things I appreciate about the mHealth Summit is its size. It is the largest gathering out there. It is a nice combination of research, having the partnership with the NIH, with the NIH leading on the research agenda is really helpful; industry, having partners coming at it from an industry perspective; and having a partner like the mHealth Alliance which is trying to make sure that the voices of those from the Global South are featured within the discussion. There is so much learning from the Global South that has implications for how we do things in the United States and Europe. Imagine what you learn from trying to do things in a very resource constrained environment, and then apply those lessons where you actually have the resources.

In countries like Ethiopia, they are working their way through a national strategic process in ways the United States hasn’t even started. Yet, we have some wonderful efforts being undertaken in the United States by the FDA and FTC to look at the mHealth regulatory issues that a lot of other countries are struggling with and that can look to the United States.

If you look at the way mHealth exists in the real world, it requires that connection between industry, the policy & regulatory environment, and research. They are completely interconnected although many times we segment them out. A lot of times when I sit at meetings one of the frustrations of mine is that the NGOs, governmental institutions and maybe an academic institution or two are there but then industry gets left out. And then when you have industry meetings, they are not talking to any of these other people. At some point, none of this stuff is going to make any sense unless everyone is talking to each much more effectively to achieve commonly agreed health objectives.

Other information

The following is a description of the mHealth Alliance from its webpage:

The mHealth Alliance champions the use of mobile technologies to improve health throughout the world. Working with diverse partners to integrate mHealth into multiple sectors, the Alliance serves as a convener for the mHealth community to overcome common challenges by sharing tools, knowledge, experience, and lessons learned. The mHealth Alliance advocates for more and better quality research and evaluation to advance the evidence base;  seeks to build capacity among health and industry decision-makers, managers, and practitioners; promotes sustainable business models; and supports systems integration by advocating for standardization and interoperability of mHealth platforms.  The mHealth Alliance also hosts HUB (Health Unbound), a global online community for resource sharing and collaborative solution generation. Hosted by the United Nations Foundation, and founded by the Rockefeller Foundation, Vodafone Foundation, and UN Foundation, the Alliance now also includes PEPFAR, HP, the GSM Association, and NORAD among its founding partners. For more information, visit http://www.mhealthalliance.org.

Patty Mechael has a Masters in International Health from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and a PhD in Public Health and Policy from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where she specifically examined the role of mobile phones in relation to health in Egypt. She was also a speaker at the 2011 mHealth Summit where she presented here “Top ten lessons learned from mHealth rollouts”. Below is a recounting of the list, as reported by Brian Dolan of MobiHealthNews

  1. Capitalized on what others have done, what others have learned
  2. Evaluate the impact of mobile technologies to support behavior change
  3. Locally-generated content is important. Be sure to appropriately contextualize information makes it more meaningful
  4. Adapting materials to mobile is a challenging undertaking
  5. Move away from research focus on user satisfaction and actually evaluate the impact on health outcomes
  6. Be realistic and don’t get caught up in the hype. Tone it down, at least
  7. Take a systems-thinking approach and move away from single-issue focus
  8. Recycle, repurpose, reuse; don’t reinvent the wheel, (especially if it’s a flat tire, as another speaker quipped)
  9. mHealth at scale can only come from strong leadership linking technology with health priorities and looking for most appropriate tools that exist; look for public-private partnerships
  10. It’s not about technology.