April 7, 2017

#WorldHealthDay: Mobile health solutions for noncommunicable diseases and mental health

By Theadora Mills

Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are one of the major global health challenges of the 21st century. NCDs include cancers, diabetes, heart and lung diseases and are responsible for approximately 38 million deaths each year. This represents 68% of global deaths annually and many of these are preventable.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also identified strong links between NCDs and depression. As the theme of World Health Day 2017 is focused on mental health and depression, there are mobile applications (apps) that are helping to provide care and assistance for those suffering from anxiety, depression or other mental health disorders.

Indeed, new applications of information and communication technologies (ICTs) can help individuals identify and take action against NCD risk factors including harmful use of alcohol, physical inactivity, tobacco use, unhealthy diets, and more.

As national healthcare providers are looking for cost effective and high-quality healthcare solutions, they are relying more on digital health systems. And increasingly, individuals looking to maintain their physical and mental well-being are utilizing mobile health (mHealth) for health monitoring and support.

The promise of digital health

It is estimated that 1.6 billion people could benefit from digital health by 2030.

The UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development’s new report, Digital Health: A Call for Government Leadership and Cooperation between ICT and Health, co-authored by Nokia and Novartis Foundation, illustrates the benefits of effective government leadership to promote and coordinate strong digital health ecosystems.

“Private companies are more likely to get involved in an open, productive, and helpful way if the health system is built around a transparent, officially promoted architecture,” writes Vital Wave, one of the co-developers of the report. “If good governance and coordinated project management come from within, and from the top, the benefit is manifold.”

The country analyses in the report provide eight case studies which can help governments coordinate their own national digital health strategies and to improve quality and efficiency of healthcare services.

Mobile solutions for NCDs and mental illness

Be He@lthy, Be Mobile is a partnership of WHO and ITU which aims to leverage mobile technologies to address “the quiet epidemic” of NCDs. Through apps and SMS-based programmes, the initiative has successfully launched mHealth programmes including mDiabetes in Senegal and mCessation in Costa Rica.

The mCessation programme in Costa Rica uses SMS messaging to help smokers explore their behavior and to encourage them in their quest to stop smoking. “It’s a low cost, but highly effective system. ICTs are a valuable tool in ensuring good health and the future,” said Daisy Corrales the former Minister of Health from Costa Rica speaking to ITU during the launch of Be He@lthy, Be Mobile.

WHO notes the strong links between NCDs and depression. They state, “Depression increases the risk of substance use disorders such as diabetes and heart disease; the opposite is also true, meaning that people with these other conditions have a higher risk of depression.”

There are several examples of mHealth programmes for mental health. For example, Appyness is a free mobile app designed to help teenagers who are struggling with anxiety or depression to keep track of their daily progress. It also provides relevant links and resources on coping mechanisms. A similar app, SAM: Self Help for Anxiety Management was designed to help people cope with physical and mental symptoms of anxiety and to provide a platform where users can share their experiences anonymously.

It is clear that mobile applications will help to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 3) to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages, and mHealth solutions are helping to speed progress on target 3.4 to reduce by one third premature mortality from non-communicable diseases through prevention and treatment and promote mental health and well-being.

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ITU is the United Nations' specialized agency for information and communication technology. Any opinions expressed and statistics presented by third parties do not necessarily reflect the views of ITU.

#WorldHealthDay: Mobile health solutions for noncommunicable diseases and mental health

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