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New study documents the behavioural impacts of phones and social support networks in rural Southeast Asia

A mobile phone user in Thailand

Image credit: Dr Marco J Haenssgen

GSD researcher Marco J Haenssgen, Giacomo Zanello (University of Reading), and Nutcha Charoenboon (University of Bristol) have released a new paper in the prestigious journal World Development. Analysing health behaviours in rural Thailand and Laos, the researchers highlight the complexities of technological change and caution against over-enthusiastic medical interventions that aim to promote health through mobile phones.

The rapid spread of mobile phones worldwide has sparked excitement about the development potential of mobile technology in low- and middle-income countries. The industry group Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA)* currently lists more than 1,000 health-related mobile phone interventions worldwide. The researchers found that, after excluding other factors that influence patients’ healthcare access, poor people tended to indeed benefit both from phones and from support among their families and friends. In the poorest segments of the rural populations, phone users were in fact 84% more likely to access public healthcare, while people receiving support from their families and friends were 105% more likely than poor villagers without such assistance. However, in general, patients who used phones were also significantly less likely to be poor.

Lead author Dr Haenssgen explains that, “We need to change the medical narrative and stop pretending that mobile phones will automatically make healthcare more inclusive. They certainly have the potential to be vehicles for helpful interventions, but we also need to understand and appreciate the ways in which they consistently create new divisions, especially among poor people in developing countries – who are often the primary target group of such health interventions.”

The researchers collected representative survey data from 2,141 villagers in northern Thailand and southern Laos.

You can read the full paper here.

Want to analyse the data yourself? The survey data set is freely available at the UK Data Service here.

Full reference

Haenssgen, MJ, Charoenboon, N & Zanello, G. (2021). You've got a friend in me: how social networks and mobile phones facilitate healthcare access among marginalised groups in rural Thailand and Lao PDR. World Development, 137: 105156. doi: 10.1016/j.worlddev.2020.105156