Can You Heal Me Now?

While many Americans view cell phones as indispensable to their social and professional lives, more and more Africans are finding cell phones to be indispensable to good health. In sub-Saharan villages, for example, mobile phones are quickly moving beyond being a means of communication to playing a key role in health care delivery, says Dr. Fay Cobb Payton, an associate professor of information systems and technology in the College of Management.

Payton has studied and worked with technology in the U.S. health care system for years, first for companies like IBM and Ernst & Young, and later as a Ph.D. student at Case Western Reserve University. After a friend asked her a few years ago to study the use of telemedicine in a hospital in India, she began to look at health care technology in developing countries. A 2005 trip to Nigeria was an eye-opener. “The pervasive use of mobile technology surprised me,” she says, noting cellular towers have arrived in many parts of Africa before land lines. “The Internet is an expensive proposition for many areas, but even in the smallest villages, people have mobile phones and use them widely.”

“It’s not enough to drop technology in an area. We need to educate patients and physicians on the cost and care benefits.”

With National Science Foundation support, Payton and colleagues at Southern University have examined how clinics in Cameroon use cell phones to treat patients with heart disease. Nurses used to travel to rural villages and bring back notes about each patient, which had to be transcribed before a physician was consulted, she says. Text messages, cell phone pictures, and cell phone video now allow nurses in the field to transmit patient conditions and histories directly to physicians in the clinic for faster consultations. “They are important for speed and data capture,” Payton says. The research hasn’t yet drawn conclusions about the cell phones’ impact on patient outcomes, but she notes that heart patients can only benefit from faster treatment.

Likewise, patients can benefit from more information to manage their illnesses. In a separate study, Payton, Dr. James Kiwanuka-Tondo, an associate professor of communications in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and Penn State researchers are reviewing online information available to Ugandan women with AIDS to see how the information is used. Public health officials must make information dissemination more of a priority, Payton says. “It’s not enough to drop technology into an area,” she says. “We need to educate patients and physicians on the cost and care benefits and provide ongoing training so they become comfortable with using the technology to improve public health.”


Cell phones are pervasive in Africa, including rural areas where land lines aren't in place. (Photo by Jeffrey Barbee/The New York Times/Redux.)

Dr. Fay Cobb Payton studies the use of technology in health care settings.