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Can mobile phones enhance palliative care in sub-Saharan Africa

Author: Matthew Allsop, Academic Unit of Palliative Care at the University of Leeds
16 July 2015

Palliative care in sub-Saharan Africa is well positioned to benefit from the rising use of mobile phones in the region. While interventions involving mobile phones have been emerging for communicable diseases, such as HIV and TB, palliative care has not yet fully explored their potential.

A workshop held in Kampala this month aimed to change that. With representation from palliative care organisations across Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda, plans for pushing forward mobile phone research were discussed.

Palliative care services in sub-Saharan Africa are seeing increasing numbers of countries establishing national palliative care associations and including palliative care in national plans and policies.

Despite the use of a wide range of different service models, coverage of palliative care remains very low across the region. One approach to increase access and enhance palliative care service delivery is through the application of mobile phone technology.

In sub-Saharan Africa, mobile networks reach more people than any other advanced communication technology. Access exceeds that of basic services, such as electricity, sanitation and financial services. mHealth, which is the practice of medicine and public health supported by mobile devices, has significant potential for a positive impact on healthcare in the region.

The workshop, held in Kampala on Thursday 2 July, was attended by delegates representing the following groups:

There was also involvement of delegates from the University of Edinburgh, and two companies specialising in mHealth (Honexus and Medic Mobile).

The workshop opened with both the Ugandan and East Africa national anthems performed by Brass for Africa; an organisation making a positive change to the lives of disadvantaged children, young people and their communities in Africa through brass music and music education.

Attendees of the workshop shared their experiences of using mobile phones in palliative care services. Currently, most palliative care providers are utilising mobile phones to make contact with patients as part of routine care.

For example, health professionals are providing their number to patients and their families to make contact whenever support is required. When used in this way, mobile phones were reported as being particularly useful for patients based in rural settings.

A phone call can be used to determine whether a patient is required to make an often costly journey to the clinic and reassurance and support can be provided immediately to a patient and their family.

Presently mobile phone use in palliative care services is at an early stage across the region. Research is trying to establish the feasibility of mHealth in this context, seeking to understand both the patient and health professional perspectives.

Extending this early work to begin to consider how patients can benefit from mHealth is crucial to evolve mHealth research in palliative care. Three key objectives were generated by delegates at the workshop, designed to accelerate development:

  1. establish a research network with an interest in mHealth research in palliative care in sub-Saharan Africa
  2. conduct a consensus survey across sub-Saharan Africa palliative care providers to establish priorities for developing mHealth research; and
  3. present developments in mHealth at the 5th International African Palliative Care Conference to be held in Kampala between 16 and 19 August 2016.

Achieving these objectives in the coming months will create strong foundations on which to develop a structured approach to evidence generation for mHealth interventions in palliative care.

While the emergence of research in this area is at an early stage, we are keen to identify others who are interested in being involved in its development. 

We would like to acknowledge the International Researcher Collaboration Award, University of Leeds, UK, which provided funding to enable the workshop to happen. 

Dr Matthew Allsop is a researcher focusing on technology development in palliative care services, from the Academic Unit of Palliative Care at the University of Leeds, UK. Contact Dr Allsop to discuss this work further, or to become part of the research network. 

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