Managing Emergencies with High-Tech Mobile Health Tools

I’ve been mulling over something that came up at the 2011 World Mobile Congress: mobile health, its practical applications, the high-tech equipment required to support it, and the long-term view of what’s possible. With Japan’s earthquake and tsunami still very much in the news, conversations about mobile health and mobile health equipment seem at once trivial and yet profound.

It’s trivial because the conversation among industry players frequently centers on revenue potential, market growth predictions, and plenty of promises to change the face of global healthcare. This number-crunching talk becomes banal in the face of natural disasters we’ve witnessed in Japan, Haiti, New Orleans, Indonesia, and many other places.

I don’t want to completely dismiss the financial rewards or barriers because eventually, these business issues will be important to supply chain professionals as more device makers enter the space and regional governments search for solutions. However, I’m finding myself drawn to the real-world need to advance this technology — quickly.

For now, let’s leave aside the big picture of how delivering health services through mobile devices or applications could heighten people’s overall wellness awareness, influence lifestyle decisions, and keep people healthy. Let’s just look at this through the narrow window of emergency medical services and how effective public-private partnerships during crisis may seed activities that become longer-term, industry-wide best practices.

Smart cars are being designed with technology and sensors that would relay location and vehicle information to first-responders in the event of a serious accident. What would happen if mobile technology like that could be wired into buildings, or bridges, or cell phones? (I’m assuming the technology could be honed enough to distinguish an earthquake-scale event from a truck rumbling by, or someone riding a roller coaster.) Could that information, transmitted through durable, super reliable, and dedicated communication lines, better help emergency crews pinpoint where the need for help is the greatest?

Arguably, yes. We only have to look at Haiti to see an example of this. According to the video below posted by Dr. Roni Zeiger, Chief Health Strategist at {complink 2294|Google}, physicians used mobile devices like iPhones to create on-the-fly electronic health records for patients. Companies such as FrontlineSMS and others built a system by which healthcare providers could send a short code via SMS; that information was aggregated and mapped to show healthcare needs in various areas. Additionally, Google, in collaboration with the on-the-ground health agencies and NGOs, developed an application called Resource Finder to display hospitals and better match medical needs with available resources.

It’s not just cell phones that fall in the category of the mobile emergency medical care. Earlier this month, before the quake in Japan, MobileHealthWatch reported on a new telehealth product designed with emergency situations in mind. {complink 2376|Hewlett-Packard Co.} and Lifebot have collaborated on development of an HP Slate 500 tablet with the Lifebot Disaster Relief and Emergency Medical Services ambulance teletriage and disaster management system. The Website states that “the system's high-def, interactive voice and video communication features deliver access to — and enables remote management of — patients in more locations, including remote emergency rooms, ambulances, satellite facilities, or intensive care units.” The companies are also looking to make those functions available on HP's TouchSmart 9100 all-in-one PC.

While watching and reading the news coming out Japan, I haven't come across many specific details about what kinds of mobile health applications are being used in recovery efforts. What have you heard? What kinds of partnerships are being created on the fly? In a country where technology thrives, I imagine some innovative practices are being developed that could immediately benefit the Japanese, and maybe help all of us whenever and wherever the next disaster occurs.

12 comments on “Managing Emergencies with High-Tech Mobile Health Tools

  1. DataCrunch
    March 16, 2011

    Hi Jennifer, I like where your thought process is headed, although I am not sure how effective mobile phones are in the event of tragedy like we are witnessing in Japan.   Do the people affected still have coverage?  I think mobility can add a lot of value in terms of emergency responsiveness in many situations, but catastrophic events may be problematic.  We need to explore in more detail emergency contingency scenarios.

  2. Jennifer Baljko
    March 16, 2011

    Dave – You're right. Emergency contigency planning is key. I don't really know now quickly the networks are coming back online, and a natrual diaster of this magnitude makes it  exponentially more challenging to coordinate recovery efforts, quickly reach those in need, restore mobie access, and, if phone did work, keep batteries charged.

    But, usually, aren't most Western countries wired in a way that certain frequencies or channels dedicated for crisis-management can come online as quickly as possible after disaster strikes? It does seem, to me, first-responders have access to some amount of information and communication, but  I honestly have no idea how emergency management communication systems work. Any comm guys want to weigh in?

  3. prabhakar_deosthali
    March 17, 2011

    With the kind of damage the earthquake and the resulting Tsunami have caused to the infrastructure of the affected areas of Japan, It is quite unlikely that the mobile networks are alive in those areas. The best way to connect in such situations will be through the satelite phones and I think they provide only voice communications. So I am not sue whether any healthcare applications on mobile will be useful in this scenario.

  4. jbond
    March 17, 2011

    The thought of mobile health applications is great. This would be of great assistance to first responders and medical staff. However in an event like this, I'm sure communication towers have been destroyed, or at least the infrastructure that supports them is gone. My first thought would be communications through SAT phones. As far as I know those are limited to voice, with the exception of the military. Maybe if there was a way to operate some limited services on certain satellites during emergencies, these applications could be used more often. 

  5. itguyphil
    March 17, 2011

    Like in 24…!

  6. elctrnx_lyf
    March 18, 2011

    I think the mobile will play a big role in fulfilling the right setup for the emergency management and the disaster recovery. But all it needs would couple of extra big buttons on the mobile which can deliver messages to three medical service providers and five close persons as stored on the phone. I've heard of such a mobile is in the market made by iball recently.

  7. mario8a
    March 18, 2011

    Hi Jennifer

    First of all thank you, for this really good article.

    Coming from the Mobile phone industry I was able to help during the  9/11 tragedy providing some support with hands free comunications, we basically focus on providing all the possible comunication channels to help those heroes helping people, it is amazing how with the right communication gear a lot can be achieved on those times of emergencies.


  8. saranyatil
    March 19, 2011

    I think this is the right time when Phones should come handy for all our needs, Especially in scenarios like Japan.

  9. Jennifer Baljko
    March 20, 2011

    Thanks everyone for taking the time to comment

    mario8a  – Can you tell us some more about “how with the right communication gear a lot can be achieved on those times of emergencies.” In your experience, what kind of gear would be most valuable/useful?

    elctrnx_lyf This is a good idea: “couple of extra big buttons on the mobile which can deliver messages to three medical service providers and five close persons as stored on the phone.” 

    And I'll check this out:”I've heard of such a mobile is in the market made by iball.”

  10. Kunmi
    March 20, 2011

    Mobile system has become an essential item of our lives. It can be networked with home security system, It can be used to monitor children (Tel/tv), navigation and many others. The current use of mobile technology will not mark the limit but it is just the begining of future innovations. One thing is sure, one discovery is a stepping stone for another one. The disaster in Japan should be an eye opener to technology companies. Capability of mobile technology can be developed into monitoring health related issues such as radiation level. Satellite phone is a great tool but the only issue is the cost

  11. stochastic excursion
    March 22, 2011

    The leveraging of the mobile platform by internet services has had much success, and has proven to be a valuable resource in emergencies.  One example is Google's people-finder, which instantly links the finder of a missing person with the people searching for them.

  12. hwong
    March 22, 2011

    I would like to see the mobile device emit emergency signals to prompt people for action. For example:  if there were going to be a big earthquake to hit and scientists have already captured that information, I'd like to be notify as soon as possible. Even if it was a false alarm, that would at least give me heads up what to do and what NOT to do in the next moments. That's where the mobile device can come in handy to alert me and prevent me from being harmed.

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