coincide with National Woman’s Month, the South African National Department of
Health launch MomConnect - a bold initiative and one of the first national, at
scale, mobile health (mHealth)
initiatives in the world.
is part of a project that seeks to register all pregnant women in the country
for an SMS service that will provide information and advice on pregnancy. It’ll
also act as a channel to notify the government about poor service.
While the academic and policy community continues to grapple with
the many challenges of implementing mHealth initiatives in low and middle
income countries, South Africa has taken the plunge and we commend the National
Department of Health on its vision and commitment to address maternal and child
Potential benefits of
There are a number of fantastic reasons to be excited about MomConnect:
- It will help South Africa meet
the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) on maternal and child mortality.
- It offers a way of improving
South Africa’s data systems by recording all pregnancies as early as possible.
- It helps to promote healthy
behavior, help mothers identify risk factors and improve mothers’ knowledge of,
and uptake of, available health services.
- It enables pregnant women and mothers
to ask questions and seek clarity on maternal health issues. It offers the
opportunity for women to give feedback
on the services that they have received from the clinics. This addresses supply side challenges,
particularly discrepancies in the kinds of services provided by health
clinics. Health workers throughout the
country have already received some training in relation to MomConnect and this
feedback mechanism enhances the demand for and recognition of good
performance. SMS messaging will also be
used to enrich health workers’ skills and augment their training.
- Finally, all women can
de-register at the time of their choosing.
3 important areas that
must not be neglected
The rollout of mHealth at national scale will be watched by South
Africans and others around the world.
Can mHealth really be used to overcome health system challenges
experienced in low and middle income countries?
Will the results from MomConnect finally provide evidence that mHealth
initiatives can be successfully scaled up and can meet the health needs of poor
and marginalised populations?
But social science research calls attention to another dimension –
how might MomConnect be experienced and used differently to policy makers’
expectations? We predict three areas
where MomConnect implementation may differ from the ideal and where early
attention may ameliorate undesirable and unintended consequence:
South Africa has a history of population control under the previous apartheid
government. Attempts to redress this
have focused on women’s sexual and reproductive health rights and South Africa
has very progressive policies on sexual and reproductive health. Yet implementation is not always easy and
this, coupled with strong cultural or religious commitments, may mean that
MomConnect is seen as a means of committing women to motherhood. How will adolescent girls with unintended
pregnancies be treated in relation to their attendance at clinics and MomConnect? Will they be informed of their right to
access early safe abortion services and quality contraceptive options or will
they be encouraged to register with MomConnect as pregnant women? What
incentives will encourage clinic and health workers to ensure that women
receive information about safe abortion or other services appropriate to their
needs rather than assuming motherhood is always desirable?
Research in South Africa has frequently pointed to the structural problems associated
with delivering health services to all South Africans, for example lack of
infrastructure, equipment and drugs, poor staffing ratios, lack of alternative
services etc. This combined with the
very personalized nature of the MomConnect service, may mean that pregnant
women and mothers of young children do not use the feedback and complaint
services for fear of retaliation or withdrawal of subsequent health services. What
reassurance will they have that their complaints are anonymous? Also, how will information be disaggregated
to ensure that health workers who need better management and support are
provided with this?
There is massive, and well-placed, optimism about the use of mHealth to address
health system challenges such as maternal and child mortality. Nonetheless, feminist and political economy
researchers remind us to pay attention to power differentials in access to, and
control of, electronic networks. Extensive
debates about gender and ICT technology point to the ways in which technology
facilitates surveillance, commercialisation and privatisation. Private companies are invested in the ‘bottom
of the pyramid’ and in accessing women through mobile phones. The role of the private sector – in public
private partnerships on health – requires more interrogation. Who will have access to the data about which
women are pregnant and how will this be used?
What mechanisms will ensure women’s privacy against commercial
South Africa, as a young democracy, has a legacy of pioneering
health achievements aimed to redress the imbalances of the past and current
challenges. We welcome this initiative and look forward to its success.