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International Health

2011 mHealth Innovator of the Year, Assistant Professor Alain Labrique
Launches New Transdisciplinary Initiative

Johns Hopkins University Global mHealth Initiative: JHU – GmI
Advancing Global Research, Innovation and Leadership in mHealth

Assistant Professor Alain Labrique is passionate about making technology work for public health in some of the least developed parts of the world. From inventing a portable device that tests for vitamin A deficiency to testing mobile phone strategies to improve neonatal survival in rural communities, he’s been a leading innovator in mobile health (mHealth). In fact, the mHealth Alliance and the Rockefeller Foundation named Dr. Labrique one of the Top mHealth Innovators of 2011 for the mCARE project, with co-investigators IH Assistant Professor Christian Coles, IH Associate Professor Luke Mullany and Assistant Professor Elizabeth Jordan from the School of Nursing. The mCARE project is a community health worker scheduling, pregnancy monitoring, and response system to improve the delivery of antenatal and neonatal services in rural Bangladesh using mobile health systems. This innovative research is supported by a UBS Optimus Foundation Innovations Award.

Larbrique testing spectrometer in BangladeshHis newest effort—which formally launched this summer—has a decidedly more local focus, although its application will be worldwide. Labrique, along with Jordan, are spearheading the Johns Hopkins University Global mHealth Initiative (JHU-GmI). The mission of JHU-GmI is to foster a University-wide Community of Excellence, connecting faculty, staff, and students across Schools in transdisciplinary collaborations in the field of mobile health. This initiative is not only working to catalog and connect faculty and students at Hopkins, but it is also engaged with global public and private sector partners to help identify appropriate mHealth strategies to address global health challenges. From technology innovations at the Whiting School of Engineering, to fielding population-based efficacy studies in Uganda and Bangladesh, the potential for JHU to play a global leadership role in mHealth research and innovation was recognized by core members of JHU-GmI in early 2010. The Initiative hopes to enable Hopkins faculty to respond to the growing demand for evidence-based mHealth strategies and applications.

mHealth Survey
JHU – GmI is conducting a University-wide survey of mHealth research activities and projects, which will feed into a
global survey supported by WHO.

Bringing together University leaders interested in communication technologies is no small task. Over 20 faculty across Hopkins serve as members of the Initiative’s Steering Committee. Each individual is a recognized leader in some aspect of mobile technology used to improve health either in domestic projects or on a global scale. And faculty are based in various schools and institutes across the Hopkins family, including

Bloomberg School of Public Health 
School of Nursing 
School of Medicine 
Whiting School of Engineering 
Carey School of Business 
Berman Institute of Bioethics 
Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health 
Systems Institute

In addition to faculty, over 100 students have joined the group. Their involvement gives them first-hand experience in the field providing research assistance to projects. Many students also help manage the routine business of the Initiative. For instance, JHU-GmI’s new website was built in large part by students, who also keep tabs on the mHealth research field, feeding into an active social media dissemination strategy. Two students recently completed internships with the Initiative for which they helped develop evaluation protocols for mobile phone interventions in Geneva, South Asia and Africa. (Read more about one of the interns.) Recently, JHU-GmI supported 30 student scholarships to attend the December mHealth Summit in Washington, DC—the largest annual conference of its kind organized by the NIH, mHealth Alliance and the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society.

Certificate and New Course
JHU-GmI faculty are collaborating to expand the University’s offering of mHealth training. Currently, IH faculty and JHU-GmI Steering Committee members, Edward Bunker and Bill Weiss, lead a course entitled, e-Health and m-Health: Using information technology to improve health in low- and middle-income countries. Due to the popularity of this first course, Bunker, Weiss and Labrique are planning a second, 4th-term course as a follow-on. Students and health professionals can also benefit from a new certificate created by  faculty affiliated with the Initiative and sponsored by the Department of Health Policy and Management: Public Health Informatics. The certificate’s course work was designed to integrate current health information technology so that interventions can better address public health challenges. 

Select Projects
Complete lists of projects and researchers affiliated with JHU-GmI are available on its website. Some key JHU projects include the following:

mCARE is an innovative community health worker scheduling and pregnancy monitoring system, which aims to improve the delivery of antenatal and postpartum services and to compress time between crisis and care in rural Bangladesh using mobile systems.

eMOCHA is a free open-source application, developed by Drs. Robert Bollinger and Larry Chang at the Center for Clinical Global Health Education.  They are also Executive Committee members of JHU-GmI. eMOCHA is designed to assist health programs in developing countries improve provider communication and education, as well as patient care, by coordinating wireless devices with local server-based clinical training and patient care support services.

K4Health™ featuring the mHealth Toolkit, which was developed by the Johns Hopkins Center for Communications Programs (CCP) team and led by Project Director Piers Bocock, provides knowledge management to clarify the opportunities and uncertainties of this rapidly evolving field. Selected resources are presented to suggest promising approaches for the high potential of mHealth.

JHU-GmI StudentsThe 2011 mHealth Summit is the largest conference of its kind and explores the ways mobile technology can transform health care delivery, research, business and policy in the US and abroad. Core JHU-GmI faculty—including Drs. Betty Jordan (SON), Larry Chang (SOM) and the Department’s Heather Rosen (IIP)—were featured at the 3rd Annual Summit in Washington, DC, December 5 – 7. As a winner of the Top 11 Innovative mHealth Projects of 2011, Dr. Labrique and the mCARE team, including Drs. Coles, Mullany and Jordan, were showcased at the conference. JHU-GmI members also led the session entitled “Evidence Matters: Perspectives across the mHealth Landscape on Priorities, Gaps, and Common Goals for Strengthening the Evidence Base.” The panel session focused on evidence needs and gaps, appropriate research methods and priorities.

Several internships are under development to field students in mHealth opportunities at leading mHealth programs and projects, from the WHO and GSMA to field projects in Bangladesh and Pakistan. In addition to a monthly seminar series, a student Innovations Competition is being planned and an mHealth Expo & Keynote Lecture is in the works for a February “mHealth Day.”

JHU-GmI hopes to continue expanding its University network, and will continue to identify opportunities for students, staff and faculty to learn about, engage in, and share experiences in their use of mobile technologies in global health. A more interactive website is in the works that will help make these connections possible, helping to put Hopkins on the mHealth map.

As Dr. Labrique reflected after a WHO experts’ meeting in Bellagio, Italy, “Many of us believe that eHealth and mHealth strategies have tremendous potential to play a transformative role in global health, especially in remote, rural and resource-constrained settings.” When the expert meeting concluded, the panel issued a “Call to Action” with recommendations including the challenge to develop an “eHealth Evaluation Learning Network” to promote in-country evaluation of eHealth interventions—just one of the many challenges JHU-GmI was developed to address. 

--Brandon Howard, December 2011