A Practical Guide for Engaging with Mobile Network Operators to Improve mHealth Outcomes

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The field of mobile health (mHealth) is experiencing a real need for guidance on public–private partnerships among players as diverse as the mobile industry, technology vendors, government stakeholders and mHealth service providers.
This practical guide for engaging with mobile network operators in mHealth for reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health provides a practical resource for mHealth service providers (e.g. developers and implementers) to partner more strategically with one of these critical players – the mobile network operators (MNOs).
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Despite the growing literature on how to develop partnerships, there is a lack of clear, practical strategies for the health community to engage with MNOs to better scale up mHealth services. Notable challenges to engaging with MNOs are divergent motivators, reluctance to take on risks, and availability of resources and investment opportunities.

  • While mHealth service providers focus primarily on the health system outputs of an mHealth service and lower access costs for clients, MNOs must consider financial and marketing interests common to private-sector stakeholders.
  • The motivation for MNOs includes differentiating their brand from competitors, effectively using their information and communication technologies and corporate capabilities, and developing alternative revenue streams from traditional voice and data services.

For effective and sustained collaboration, MNOs and mHealth service providers need to understand the value that each party brings to the partnership.
For instance, MNOs can raise critical questions regarding the magnitude and visibility of the health problem, the demographics and mobile phone usage of the MNO subscriber base, the type of technology capacity required, and the opportunities for diversifying or expanding revenue.
mHealth service providers should also explore the MNO’s assets, including:

  • their connectivity capabilities (e.g. transmission of voice, text and data exchange);
  • their support infrastructure (e.g. their ability to handle billing services, track usage and provide customer support);
  • their business infrastructure (e.g. powerful brand and effective marketing);
  • and funding mechanisms (e.g. corporate social responsibility to finance mHealth efforts).

Lastly, mHealth service providers should consider whether direct engagement with MNOs is the most effective way to access the mobile capabilities they require, or if intermediaries such as mobile aggregators may be more appropriate.
This guide from the WHO and UN Foundation distills best practices and industry-wide lessons by providing key motivators, challenges and recommendations for mHealth service providers to engage with MNOs for scaling up their initiatives.