Tāmaki Innovation Campus

mHealth potential to improve Pacific health care

Elaine Umali in the Atrium of the School of Population Health at Tamaki Campus.
Elaine Umali’s research into mHealth has been supported by the Fred Hollows Foundation NZ

The potential use of mobile phones as a health tool for disease prevention and control in the Pacific has led Master of Public Health graduate Elaine Umali to connect some of the world’s most remote regions, helped by a Fred Hollows Foundation NZ scholarship.

She’s now writing her formal paper but warns mHealth (mobile health services) is not the hoped for silver bullet. Although promising and with potential, she doesn’t believe it is a substitute for actual improvements in the health system, especially in low-resourced settings. If core health infrastructures are defective or lacking, investments on mHealth cannot be used to replace actual investments to improve health services she asserts.

The journey for Philippine born and educated Elaine began when she took up Global Health papers in the School of Population Health, as course requirements for postgraduate studies in public health, under co-ordinator Dr Judith McCool. Hearing about the Fred Hollows Foundation NZ Scholarship for researchers and adding to the knowledge of the Foundation struck a chord.

“I wanted to look at how mobile phones could be used in health, because it presents a critical opportunity among low and middle income countries to improve and increase access to health care,” she says.

“The rapid spread of mobile technology across the globe is making the medium very attractive in the development sector. And in the Pacific, there’s been a huge leap in the number of people with access to a mobile phone, providing a way for Pacific Islanders to change how they communicate, govern and implement activities.

“Looking at how mobile phones can be used for health in the region is something timely and useful,” says Elaine.

During her research she undertook an analysis of key stakeholder perspectives on establishing mobile phone services in the Pacific region to support the prevention of trachoma by conducting interviews with key NGO and government representatives and mHealth experts across the Pacific, Asia, Africa and the United States. She hopes the outcomes can be a useful tool to start debate around the use of mHealth in the region and enhancing local health systems.

Before moving with her family to New Zealand five years ago, Elaine worked for a variety of internationally funded development programmes, spending more than five years in tuberculosis programmes in the Philippines as well as environmental governance projects, and hygiene and sanitation initiatives. She retains a passion for development work and views this research as another step in advancing healthcare development in the Pacific.

Since 2012, the Fred Hollows Foundation NZ has funded research scholarships to support Master of Public Health students in the School of Population Health’s Global Health group. Students work in partnership with the Foundation and its Pacific Eye Institute in Suva.

This article was first published in the September 2014 Tāmaki Update