How the Mobile Phone is Changing the Face of Healthcare in Nigeria

“There’s 5.6 billion people using wireless today in the world. To put that in a healthcare context, that’s more people using cell phones than toothbrushes.” – Paul Jacobs, Ph.D., CEO, Qualcomm.


In the July – September issue of the Nigerian Journal of Clinical Practice, public health researchers from the Department of Community Medicine at the University of Port Harcourt, published results from a small randomized trial which demonstrated that compliance rates with anti-retroviral medications among patients with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), could be improved by simple cognitive and behavioral intervention strategies consisting of monthly adherence counselling sessions and twice weekly mobile phone text messaging reminders respectively.

The authors concluded that “adherence counselling and text message reminders improved adherence among HIV patients” and recommended adoption of the strategies for HIV patient management.

As much as I was surprised to learn that adherence counselling was not already part of standard care for HIV patients at the University of Port Harcourt, the interventional strategy utilized in the clinical study illustrates one of the many and simple ways through which health care can be advanced by using mobile phones and other devices.

Mobile health (or m-health for short), simply defined, is the practice of public health and medicine, supported by mobile devices. Mobile applications can lower costs and improve the quality of healthcare as well as shift behavior to strengthen prevention, all of which can improve health outcomes over the long term. Mobile health approaches can also  be applied towards the assessment and treatment of diseases and conditions.

Mobile health adoption in Nigeria appears to be in its infancy, but early signs point to a bright future. A few examples are outlined below. Other examples abound.

  • Startup company PharmaSecure developed and recently launched a short message service (SMS) text authentication mobile application to fight drug counterfeiting in Nigeria and other developing countries.
  •  Health informatics researchers from the Universities of Oslo, Maine and Calabar, led by Ime Asangasi are working on community-based data collection using mobile technology to improve and strengthen local health management information systems in Cross River State.
  • There are also reports of primary healthcare facilities using SMS applications like RapidSMS to transmit local health information to reporting centers, thereby reducing paperwork and saving on reporting time. RapidSMS is a free and open source framework, created by the Innovation Team at UNICEF, for building interactive SMS applications.
  • The mobile health alliance has partnered with the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Health on integrating the strategic use of Information Communication Technologies (ICT’s) into the ministry’s  overall Saving One Million Lives initiative.

With the explosion in mobile phone ownership and usage, mobile technologies have great potential for strengthening health systems in Nigeria.

Mobile network penetration has been a key driver of success of m-health initiatives in other developing countries like Kenya and India. Nigeria had about 95 million mobile cellular subscriptions as at 2011 and currently has the fastest growing market in the world.

The application opportunities are potentially limitless and very exciting. Health and fitness, health evaluation and monitoring, data collection, health care collaboration, consulting and counselling, crowdsourcing and health education are just but a few examples. Mobile health applications also present a great business opportunity for savvy private investors.