October 25, 2016
Written by By Alice Lin Fabiano, Director, Global Community Impact, Johnson & Johnson
The ubiquity of the mobile phone has changed life forever. Everyone reading this will remember their first mobile phone and what it was able to do. Maybe it saved you from scrambling for change to use a payphone on a street corner. Maybe you were able to send a text message to let a friend know you’d be late for a planned meeting. For some, especially those born after the turn of the century, it’s hard to understand that there was a time, not very long ago, when information was only available in a handful of places, like a library or a doctor’s office.
In low income countries, mobile technology has emerged as a way to overcome longstanding barriers to information. Now, with more phones than people in the world, and rising mobile phone penetration in developing countries, the mobile phone delivers health information in a way that’s relatable and positive, right into people’s hands, no matter their socio-economic status. For HIV-positive pregnant women around the world, a simple SMS has been a gateway to a healthier future. And while cell phones and text messaging are no longer a truly new technology, how they are used to improve health is an area of near-constant innovation.
In South Africa, for example, MomConnect, a partnership between the South African Department of Health, Praekelt, BabyCenter, Johnson & Johnson, and a number of implementing partners has transformed prenatal care. South Africa has the first digital national health registry in the world — and the mobile phone has been key to its success. Mobile technology is not only providing health information to women, but helping the health system keep track of every pregnancy. This ensures that women and adolescent girls, one of the hardest-to-reach groups, receive the care and support they need.
Every setting has its own unique circumstances and therefore requires its own approaches to meet the needs of women and the health system itself. In India, literacy rates, especially among women, are low. In some parts of the country, only 63% of the overall population can read and write. mMitra, a partnership between the government of India, Armman, Dasra, BabyCenter, and Johnson & Johnson, addressed this barrier by providing voice messages delivered via cell phone to ensure all women can benefit from health information and connect to services.
mMitra voice messages have evolved to meet a variety of needs. Husbands and family members can receive tailored mMitra messages because they, too, play a vital role in ensuring women and children are healthy. This year, mMitra began sharing messages about the importance of nutrition for pregnant women and children, a critical step in addressing malnutrition in India. The word “mitra” means “friend” — and women have described the service as a mobile friend, providing positive, emotive support when it’s needed most.
At Johnson & Johnson, we’ve found that mHealth is not an innovation with a one-to-one impact; benefits have been system-wide. mHealth has strengthened pregnancy monitoring, and served as a catalyst to change social norms and increase access to information. It’s caused a bottom-up change in health systems, educating and empowering women and families, and creating demand for services. Now, more women are bringing their partners in for HIV testing in South Africa and more family members in India are respecting women’s voices as they makes decisions to care for their babies.
Every woman, whether she’s pregnant for the first, or even the fifth or sixth time, needs care and information. Mobile phones — once used for simple texts and calls —have proven time and time again that there are innovative ways to support mothers-to-be — especially HIV-positive mothers to be — with the information and care they need to be healthy during pregnancy and beyond. And as mMitra and MomConnect have shown, we’re just beginning to see this technology’s potential to strengthen not only individual health, but health systems as a whole.
Next month, mMitra and MomConnect will each achieve major new milestones. Stay tuned for next month’s newsletter for some exciting new developments.
Alice Lin Fabiano is a Director of Global Community Impact at Johnson & Johnson. She is responsible for its strategic philanthropy partnerships in digital health and HIV/AIDs.
Prior to joining Johnson & Johnson, Ms. Lin Fabiano was a strategy consultant at The Bridgespan Group where she worked with leaders and organizations to accelerate social change, with a focus on women’s empowerment and education. Ms. Lin Fabiano was a Harvard Business School Fellow at Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF). She began her career at Morgan Stanley where she was part of the founding team that launched the firm’s Social Finance and Microfinance Institutions Group, and raised more than $100 million for women entrepreneurs around the globe.
Ms. Lin Fabiano holds an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and a B.A. from The Johns Hopkins University. She is a proud board member of Prakti Design, a social enterprise that designs cook stoves for the world’s poor.