Leading health and development organisations such as the World Health Organization increasingly recognise the risk of “digital inequalities” – that the use of technologies like mobile phones can exclude poor and disadvantaged groups.
A new study led by Warwick University Assistant Professor Marco J Haenssgen has now demonstrated directly how mobile phones can support access to healthcare in developing countries, but at the risk that the poorest are deprived of support. Published in the prestigious journal World Development, the researchers highlight the complexities of technological change and caution against over-enthusiastic medical interventions that aim to promote health through mobile phones.
The researchers conducted a representative health behaviour survey among 69 villages in northern Thailand and 65 villages in southern Lao PDR. Responses from this sample of 2,141 people reflect the broader living conditions and health behaviours of more than 700,000 villagers.
The study found that
- People in both regions often suffered from non-monetary poverty. Despite widespread poverty, mobile phones were commonly owned – by 97% of households in Thailand and 75% of households in Laos
- Phones increasingly integrate into people’s health behaviours and fulfil similar functions as the direct support from family and friends during an illness. Social support remained more common, however: two-thirds of patients in rural areas involved other people during their illness, only one-quarter (Thailand) and one-sixth (Laos) of patients used mobile phones when they were sick. Patients who used phones were significantly less likely to be poor