TOPICS > Science

Mobile Banking Could Be Global Health Tool

BY Talea Miller  February 24, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST

Cell phone user in Kenya. Photo by Flickr user Konrad Glogowski.

In countries where access to traditional banking services is limited, more and more people are utilizing cell phones to send money to family members, pay bills or keep track of savings.

Leading the mobile finance charge is Kenya’s  M-Pesa system, the largest mobile phone banking platform in the world. It has exploded in popularity over the last decade and now serves more than 13 million active customers.

With mobile banking systems on the rise, health experts are hoping to capitalize on the budding technology to make health services more accessible as well.

The mobile finance systems allow subscribers to store and transfer money as credits on their phones, and withdraw cash from local vendors when needed. The tools have appealed to many people who previously had no banking mechanism.

“At the end of the day, mobile is the only thing that reaches villages,” said Menekse Gencer, the founder of the consulting firm mPay Connect. She authored a recent report on mobile banking and health for the World Economic Forum and mHealth Alliance.

“There is a massive customer need. How can you conduct your life in an efficient way when you are dealing with cash alone?”

Mobile networks now cover areas of the developing world that internet access and land lines never reached. An estimated 68 percent of people in the developing world have mobile subscriptions, according to the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union, while only 21 percent have online access.

Gencer said the health field is slowly adopting mobile financial tools, including the World Food Programme, which uses mobile devices for some of its food aid voucher programs.

The application allows a food vender to enter a person’s voucher code into a mobile phone, and the system automatically reimburses the vendor via mobile payment. The convenience encourages retailers to participate in the food program, and cuts paperwork.

The same technology could easily be applied to conditional cash transfer programs, which are health promotion initiatives that offer cash incentives to poor families for getting children vaccinated, or sending them to school.

“The person who verifies the service can issue the reimbursement right there,” said Patricia Mechael, director of Strategic Application of Mobile Technology for Public Health and Development at Columbia University. “It cuts out the middle man in a lot of ways.”

It also is safer than distributing the incentives in cash, Mechael said, since cash handouts can create robbery targets.

Encouraging people to save for health services is another step mobile banking would provide, particularly in maternal healthcare.

“This is an important concern for people who don’t have insurance,” said Gencer. “Women who are pregnant, they can start putting some microsavings into a prepaid account.”

Karl Brown, associate director of Applied Technology at the Rockefeller Foundation, warned that women who don’t have savings for health services can face dire consequences.

“In Kenya, if women go in and they have a pregnancy emergency and can’t pay, the hospital will actually lock them in a prison in the hospital,” he said. Women often avoid seeking professional health assistance because of the cost issue.

Allowing patients to pay with phone credits and paying health workers over mobile systems are two other potential areas of growth that could save time and reduce inefficiency. Some nurses lose days of work trying to collect salaries from the district level, said Mechael.

While the potential is great, Brown said the health field is just “scratching the surface” of what could be done with mobile banking. And the same issues that plague mobile pilot programs in developing countries will be concerns for health innovations—many mobile technology initiatives are fragmented as people experiment with new approaches. Any one system will need to reach a critical level of participation before it can become truly useful.

That will also mean trying to coordinate between the private banking industry, finance ministries and health ministries.

“To bring cohesion to any of this you have to bring all the major players together to figure out what the value add is for them to engage,” Mechael said. “Some is well founded…some of it is just a lot of talk around applications and systems that haven’t been fully evaluated.”

The high level of enthusiasm and interest have made mobile banking and mobile health buzz words for the moment, but the roadmap for how these tools can be applied is still developing.

“People have been exploring in every which direction,” Brown said. “In some of these emerging economies, the main tool is phones. They are way ahead of [the U.S.] in innovation.”