by Christen Brownlee
On a recent Friday, Alain Labrique opened his office door and noticed a new red and yellow DHL package waiting for him on his desk.
It looked a little worse for wear. “What’s this?” he said to the visitor with him. He tore into the package’s rumpled overwrap. As he lifted the beige plastic box inside, the unmistakable tinkling of broken glass emanated.
“That can’t be good,” mused Labrique, PhD ’07, MHS ’99, MS, an assistant professor in International Health.
mHealth projects are launching at an exponential rate. How do we ensure they don’t become the public health equivalent of a dropped call?
Cutting through the copious tape binding the box closed, Labrique flipped open its top. Enclosed were several glass slides with swipes of bacterial vaginosis, a disease that Labrique is well trained to diagnose, from women in rural Bangladesh. About half the slides were broken into tiny shards.
Immediately, he pulled out his phone and snapped a picture of the damage, sending it to his colleagues in Bangladesh—a technologically savvy image worth a thousand words on how not to package slides.
“That’s mHealth 101 right there,” Labrique joked.
mHealth is short for mobile health, a growing field that takes advantage of mobile communications devices—mostly cell phones—to enhance access to health information, improve distribution of routine and emergency health services, or provide diagnostic services. With phones and other mobile technologies growing more ubiquitous by the minute, it was only a matter of time before public health researchers, practitioners and users took advantage of these media themselves. At the Bloomberg School, up and running mHealth projects range from saving the lives of pregnant women and babies in Bangladesh to assessing drug use patterns in inner city Baltimore.
But using phones to advance public health isn’t as simple as it seems. Researchers are grappling with complex questions that have already doomed hundreds of mHealth projects: How do you know whether mHealth projects are really working and worth the investment? How do you conquer the phenomenon known as “pilotitis,” and scale effective strategies into health systems that have regional or national impacts? And how do you make sure these projects are long-lasting additions, instead of the public health equivalent of a dropped call?
With a new University-wide project called the JHU Global mHealth Initiative, Labrique, his faculty colleagues and students from across Johns Hopkins are coming together to face these questions while building a new community—one that embraces this evolving technology as a game-changer with the potential of revolutionizing health.
Alain Labrique shows off a trove of low-cost technological treasures that support research from Kenya to Bangladesh.
Amazed? Enthralled? Disappointed? We want to hear from you. Share your thoughts on articles and your ideas for new stories:
Get a copy of all Feature articles in PDF format. Read stories offline, optimized for printing.