The ColdTrace 5 being used in Mozambique. Photo: Nexleaf Analytics

We are in the midst of a digital healthcare revolution. From connected platforms that transmit vital health data in real-time, to Internet of Things-enabled devices that allow for remote patient monitoring, medicine has never been more connected. Technology-based health solutions can even bridge the gap between those in the need and the resources at hand, providing access to areas that adequate healthcare has traditionally been unable to reach, particularly in communities of low and middle-income countries. Failing infrastructure, outdated medical equipment and lack of physical access to clinics and health facilities are all contributing factors to the global health crisis.

One of the greatest strengths of mobile technology is how widely available it is. According to the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of the population worldwide owns a cell phone, and of those people, 43 percent own a smartphone. By leveraging this technology, we can bring advanced medical technologies to hard-to-reach places to aid in the prevention and treatment of disease. Researchers and technology companies are building accessible, affordable solutions to help prevent, detect and treat disease, and help health workers all over the world better protect communities at risk.

Healthcare innovations built by two recent winners of the Vodafone Americas Foundation’s Wireless Innovation Project (WIP), a competition that seeks to identify and fund the best innovations using wireless-related technology to address critical social issues around the world, represent ingenuity and passion in the belief that mobile can improve lives in communities worldwide.

Improving the Vaccine Cold Chain
Immunization currently prevents between 2 and 3 million deaths per year, according to the World Health Organization. Vaccines are a vital tool in the prevention of life-threatening diseases like polio, measles and rubella. However, in parts of the world where health facilities are lacking in resources, these life-saving vaccines are vulnerable to degradation.

Most vaccines must be kept between 2°C and 8°C in order to remain viable, and many are rendered ineffective if the temperature becomes too warm or too cold. Yet, according to a statement from the World Health Organization and UNICEF, 56 percent of vaccine refrigeration equipment in low and middle-income countries is non-functional or poorly functioning. When vaccines fridges fail, vaccines are damaged, leaving communities and families susceptible to otherwise preventable diseases. This is where technology can play a great part to ensure that vaccines are delivered safely.

The 2013 WIP Winner Nexleaf Analytics is working to improve the vaccine cold chain. Nexleaf created ColdTrace, a wireless remote temperature monitoring solution designed for vaccine refrigerators in remote clinics and health facilities. The device sends fridge temperature readings and grid power availability information to a server, and can then alert health workers via text message when vaccines are in danger of damage due to temperature variation.

Since piloting ColdTrace in eight healthcare facilities in Kenya, Nexleaf has expanded the technology to seven countries, protecting the vaccine supply for over 6.1 million babies born each year. Earlier this year, Nexleaf partnered with and Gavi to strengthen the vaccine cold chain even further with a tool that will help more countries make evidence-based decisions to improve their vaccination systems, with the potential of saving millions of lives.

Making Disease Diagnosis and Monitoring Accessible to All
With over 8 billion mobile connections in the world, according to GSMA Intelligence, even scientific researchers are leveraging the technology to create compact and portable medical devices. These devices can work in areas where labs and lab tools are not easily accessible. Innovation with mobile allows for the improvement of many techniques, such as bringing the lab anywhere you need it. One example is optical spectroscopy, a technique that uses the light spectrum to examine specimen. As useful as optical spectroscopy is, traditional equipment is generally expensive and bulky, making it effectively unavailable to many facilities in difficult terrain or lower-income parts of the world.

Another 2013 Wireless Innovation Project winner has advanced the potential for optical spectroscopy. Researchers at Penn State University have created a hybrid device to make this technology more portable and accessible. Termed G-Fresnel, the device fuses two traditional components, a grating and a Fresnel lens, into a single tool. The result is a high-performance, affordable, compact spectrometer, which can be integrated with a smartphone, making it possible for the technology to reach health providers and researchers outside of the traditional lab. This technology has a variety of applications in healthcare, including cancer detection, colorimetry, monitoring surgical wounds, and detecting contaminants in food and water.

Innovations like ColdTrace and G-Fresnel can change the landscape for health challenges around the world. There is so much we can do now with the technology and innovation in our hands, and programs like the Wireless Innovation Project play an important role in seeking out new solutions.