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Green Templeton College | Oxford

Using a mobile phone to take a photo of medicine. Credits: Nutcha CharoenboonResearch by Green Templeton Research Associate Dr Marco J Haenssgen shows that the fast spread of mobile phones across low-income countries like India can make it harder for poor people without phones to access essential health services. Published today in the journal World Development, this study analysed publicly available data from more than 12,000 households in rural India with sick family members in 2005 and 2012. The study suggests that healthcare services gradually expect more people to use a mobile phone, and that mobile phone users are more assertive when they compete for access to the few doctors and nurses in rural India. In areas where mobile phone become more common, people left behind have therefore more difficulty accessing healthcare services.


Because of their fast spread globally and especially in low- and middle-income countries, mobile phones are often seen as a blessing for development, including for healthcare provision for the rural poor. According to the GSMA, an industry group, 'Mobile [technology] can increase the quality, reduce the cost and extend the reach of healthcare to benefit millions.' GSMA operates among others a platform to record new mobile health projects, which currently registers 1,081 such projects. However, Dr Haenssgen concludes that his findings 'add to a consistent picture of mobile phone use and healthcare access that has emerged over the past five years of research. While there is no reason to demonise mobile phones, we see again and again that their spread comes with problems as well as opportunities. We should therefore not conclude that now everyone really needs a mobile just to maintain their basic access to services – that would be tyranny.'

This study concludes five years of research on mobile technologies and healthcare access in rural India and China, which Dr Haenssgen carried out during and after his DPhil in International Development at the Oxford Department of International Development (co-supervised by GTC members Prof Felix Reed-Tsochas and Prof Xiaolan Fu). Earlier research on a smaller scale has indicated that health-related mobile phone use in low- and middle-income countries (India and China) that phone users are more likely to overuse scarce healthcare services, potentially to the detriment of non-users. The present study tested this hypothesis over the long term.

Dr Haenssgen acknowledges 'This publication arises from my current position as postdoctoral researcher and as Research Associate at GTC. As a college that involves in particular colleagues from the medical and social sciences, GTC is a fantastic forum for this kind of interdisciplinary research.'

The study will be published in the April issue of World Development: Haenssgen, M. J. (2018). The struggle for digital inclusion: phones, healthcare, and marginalisation in rural India. World Development, 104, 358-374. doi: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2017.12.023. A free version will be available until 18 February 2018 here.

Photo credit: Nutcha Charoenboon

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