On The Move – Mobile Communications for Health


These days, people are really mobile and want to stay connected on the go. So, how do you keep in contact with your community when they’re on the move? The City traffic people smartphoneobvious answer is via their cell phones. Nearly everyone has one and they carry them everywhere.

Cell phone ownership Africa

Mobile (cell) phones are nearly ubiquitous in industrialised nations and, most people have access to one in developing
countries, too.

According to the WHO, over 85% of the world’s population has mobile phone coverage. The growth of mobile phone networks has overtaken the development of road, rail and Internet infrastructure in many countries, making it ideal for mass communication in some low- and middle-income countries.

Hamer woman with mobile by Miro May

Hamer woman with mobile by Miro May. ation in some low- and middle-income countries.

People’s access to mobile phones is increasing, as well. Nearly 90% of people in Nicaragua have access to a mobile phone and more than 8 in 10 Ghanaians own one. Even in the US, some poorer and more marginalised communities use mobile phones for using the web, because they have no other means of accessing the internet.

Smartphones provide an ideal opportunity to engage people with health messages, because they can be used not only for calling and texting, but also as a computer. Man with smartphonePeople can use their smart phones to engage with your campaign in almost any way that they would via your static sites.

Although smartphones are quite expensive at the top end of the market, they have now become cheap enough for many people even on incomes to own one. In the UK you can pick up a smartphone for as little as £24 (less than $40) or for just over £700 (nearly $1100). In some of the poorest countries, people share phones, too, increasing their coverage even further. Pilot projects in rural have sometimes depended on shared phones to deliver text messages or allow participants to dial into a message retrieval system.

What’s the best way to use mobile technology to spread health message, then? 

  1. Integrate mobile into your wider campaign – Facebook, Twitter, e-newsletters, blogs and Instagram are great ways to keep in touch with people in your community and update them about your health campaign. As luck would have it, most social media platforms have mobile versions that you can use on a smartphone. As Heather Mansfield recommends in Social Media for Social Good, make sure your content is available in a format that can be viewed easily through a mobile browser. Have a simplified, mobile webpage linked to your mobile apps. Invite your community to download the apps and follow you while they’re mobile.
  1. Make it quick and easy to engage with your campaign on the go – If you have posters, flyers or billboards to advertise your campaign, use QR codes on posters, so people can easily reach your web content (campaign pages, blog, sign-up sheet, etc.) just by scanning them. It’s a lot easier than typing in the long string of text that is your URL. If you do print a web address use a short form that’s easy to key into a phone. Ideally, you’d have an easy to remember phone number, like 0800 GET WELL, but remember that that’s not easy to dial on a mobile phone. So, the ad campaign needs to give an easy to dial number and ideally a short text to number.
  1. Target your campaign by using the right media –As you know, different demographic groups are more or less engaged with different social media; younger people are more engaged with instant messaging services, like BBM and Snapchat, while middle-aged and older adults are more likely to use Facebook, LinkedIn and Yahoo, as well as email. There are also geographical differences. For instance, WhatsApp is very popular in Europe, but not so widely used in the US. So, pick the right mobile apps and media to suit your mobile campaign’s target audience. (Kane, 2013)
  1. Provide opportunities for people to engage immediately – Short message campaigns can be really good for reaching people in an immediate way, such as by Twitter, email or SMS. If your health campaign involves alerting people to hazards like severe weather (http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/services/mobile-weather), encouraging people to take action, such as vaccinations (Wagner, 2012), or supporting people to change their behaviour (Free et al., 2011)(http://www.nhs.uk/news/2011/06June/Pages/text-message-smoking-cessation-research.aspx) texts are a good way to go, as they’re more likely to be read. Nearly 100% or texts are read, compared to one fifth of emails, 3 in 10 tweets and just over 1 in 10 Facebook posts (London, 2013). You can group text your entire community or send individualised texts with specific personalised message.


What Else is Text Good For?        

  • Health coachingWoman runner
  • Reminding people about doctors’ appointments.
  • Managing health records and requesting prescription refills.

Appt reminder text




What else would you add to the list?

Cell Phones in Africa: Communication Lifeline | Pew Research Center. (n.d.). Retrieved August 10, 2015, from http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/04/15/cell-phones-in-africa-communication-lifeline/

Free, C., Knight, R., Robertson, S., Whittaker, R., Edwards, P., Zhou, W., … Roberts, I. (2011). Smoking cessation support delivered via mobile phone text messaging (txt2stop): a single-blind, randomised trial. Lancet (London, England)378(9785), 49–55. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60701-0

Kane, G. C. (2013). One Size Does Not Fit All in Social Media. MIT Sloan Management Review. Retrieved August 10, 2015, from http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/one-size-does-not-fit-all-in-social-media-2/

London, F. (2013). Health Coaching using Text Messages- Patient Education Blog: No Time To Teach. No Time to Teach. Retrieved August 10, 2015, from http://notimetoteach.com/health-coaching-using-text-messages/

Mansfield, H. (2012). Social Media for Social Good, A how-to guide for nonprofits. New York: McGraw Hill.

Maternal Mobile Alliance For Action. (n.d.). Chatsalud Nicaragua. MAMA Community Spotlight. Retrieved August 10, 2015, from http://www.mobilemamaalliance.org/sites/default/files/Spotlight-Chatsalud.pdf

Smith, A., & Page, D. (2015). U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015. NUMBERS, FACTS AND TRENDS SHAPING THE WORLD. Retrieved August 10, 2015, from http://www.pewinternet.org/files/2015/03/PI_Smartphones_0401151.pdf

Wagner, N. (2012). Text Messages Are a Good Public Health Tool, Flu-Vaccination Edition. The Atlantic. Retrieved August 10, 2015, from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/06/text-messages-are-a-good-public-health-tool-flu-vaccination-edition/257964/

World Health Organization. (2011). mHealth New horizons for health through mobile technologies. Geneva.


Photo credits: 

Blackberry Mania <ahref=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/23797059@N02/3461088894″>blackberry mania</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;


Man with smartphone

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/18288598@N00/2911933991″>Steve Mutinda and his Ushahidi Java app</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;


<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/60141638@N06/9210444905″>Black Word Bubble</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;


Appointment text reminder


Mobile Health Services

<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/60141638@N06/9210444905″>Black Word Bubble</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;


3 thoughts on “On The Move – Mobile Communications for Health

  1. Hi Sandra, I enjoyed reading your post as it is well-written and the graphics nicely complement the content. The graph you included really shows how much potential mHealth has on the global scale. With the ownership of mobile phones outgrowing that of computers, the return on investment in mHealth could be quite large for nonprofits and the healthcare sector as a whole. You provide a great overview of how nonprofits can use mobile campaigns to promote good health. In fact, this information is applicable to an even broader audience. It could be be valuable to use mHealth to integrate patient, provider, payer, and nonprofit efforts to improve patient outcomes.
    This year Aetna, a U.S. health care company, launched the Healthier World Innovation Challenge, a $4.5 million, three-year initiative aimed at “engaging nonprofit partners in the quest to discover, test and evaluate technology innovations that can improve health for the nation’s underserved” (https://www.aetna-foundation.org/organization-strategy/program-funding-strategy/mHealth-mobile-health.html). One interesting innovation involves mapping how patients access health care services in real time. By combining this information with health and social data, researchers hope to identify determinants of health earlier, better coordinate care, provide preventative care, and reduce healthcare costs.

  2. Your post does a good job of explaining how we can make use of the mobile part of mobile health.

    Related to your point 4 and immediate engagement, there is an interesting reverse version of that in some parts of the US. It’s text to 911 (emergency services) for people who have trouble communicating verbally, or who are in a situation where making a phone call could put them in more danger (domestic violence, home invasion). (http://snohomishcountywa.gov/181/Enhanced-911)
    Thanks to the weirdness of the US system, this is available in the county next to mine, but not in my county.

  3. Hi Sandra – I loved this post right off the bat because the images are terrific. I’m so appreciative that you found images that include people of color. The initial battery of images really drew me in and told / enhanced the story from your text so well – on the go motorcycles, rising usage graph, reaching across the globe Hamer woman, and use as computers gentleman – you got it all covered! I also appreciated your four top tips for using mobile to spread health messages – very helpful, succinct summaries. As far as what else text could be good for – how about follow-up after appointments? For example, whether a patient started a tricky new med or had one of the many diagnoses that makes doctor’s nervous (ie pediatric head injury where patient SEEMS ok), text message follow up could give reassurance to both doctor and patient that things are going smoothly or help sound an alarm if things are not.
    Great post!
    PS Thanks for your comments on my post. I am especially appreciative of your suggestion NOT to use text speak code in the messages. I hate that, but I try to use it because my sister Emma does, and I figured it was the thing to do. But, it makes sense that it is not necessary and actually could be detrimental to the professional image of a text campaign. Much appreciated!

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