Worlds Apart: A Socio-material Exploration of mHealth in Rural Areas of Developing Countries

Emmanuel Eze, Rob Gleasure, Ciara Heavin

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The implementation of mobile health (mHealth) in developing countries seems to be stuck in a pattern of successive pilot studies that struggle for mainstream implementation. This study addresses the research question: what existing health-related structures, properties and practices are presented by rural areas of developing countries that might inhibit the implementation of mHealth initiatives?

This study was conducted using a socio-material approach, based on an exploratory case study in West Africa. Interviews and participant observation were used to gather data. A thematic analysis identified important social and material agencies, practices and imbrications which may limit the effectiveness of mHealth apps in the region.

Findings show that, while urban healthcare is highly structured, best practice-led, rural healthcare relies on peer-based knowledge sharing, and community support. This has implications for the enacted materiality of mobile technologies. While urban actors see mHealth as a tool for automation and the enforcement of responsible healthcare best practice, rural actors see mHealth as a tool for greater interconnectivity and independent, decentralised care.

Research limitations/implications
This study has two significant limitations. First, the study focussed on a region where technology-enabled guideline-driven treatment is the main mHealth concern. Second, consistent with the exploratory nature of this study, the qualitative methodology and the single-case design, the study makes no claim to statistical generalisability.

To the authors' knowledge, this is the first study to adopt a socio-material view that considers existing structures and practices that may influence the widespread adoption and assimilation of a new mHealth app. This helps identify contextual challenges that are limiting the potential of mHealth to improve outcomes in rural areas of developing countries.
Original languageEnglish
JournalInformation Technology and People
Issue number8
Pages (from-to)99-141
Number of pages43
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Healthcare
  • Developing countries
  • Mobile technology
  • Socio-materiality
  • Practice
  • MHealth
  • Rural healthcare workers

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