For India, moving forward means saving women's lives

In this photo taken on Nov. 7, 2013, Indian mother Suman Chandel holds her new born baby, hours after delivery at a clinic in Jhiri, in central Madhya Pradesh. India has long had a dismal record of deaths from preventable illness.

WHITEHOUSE STATION, New Jersey — In several recent and high-profile speeches, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on India’s citizens to recognize the important link between his country’s development and the current status of girls and women.

He noted that India cannot move forward as long as its girls and women are left behind; that India will not complete its journey to becoming a global power if its girls and women remain powerless. And he emphasized that one of the most distressing problems facing girls and women is maternal mortality.

India leads the world in maternal deaths, claiming the lives of 50,000 women each year due to complications during pregnancy and childbirth. India has made improvements, lowering its rate of maternal deaths by more than two-thirds since 1990. But far too many of these tragic events still occur. In this day and age, no woman should die giving life – especially not in one of the most rapidly advancing countries in the world, and especially since nearly all of these deaths are preventable.

India’s spirit of innovation offers a major opportunity to bring down the country’s rates of maternal mortality. Technology is a case in point, and it’s encouraging that the Indian government is collaborating with civil society and private enterprise to use digital health interventions to improve health.

For example, Digital India, a national e-governance initiative that launches this month, is the government’s latest effort to connect all families in India — especially those in rural areas — to the internet and mobile phones. The goal is to improve access to essential services such as health and education.

Digital India harnesses the power of technology to provide unprecedented access to information, communication and decision-making power. The company hopes to turn a mobile phone from a simple device into an opportunity to improve one’s health, economic status and lifestyle.

Two tools Digital India is promoting are telemedicine and mobile health (mHealth) platforms. Telemedicine enables providers to offer critical medical advice and diagnoses to women in remote parts of the country who would not otherwise have access to those services in their community. Modi noted that this approach makes it possible for India’s top medical talent — typically located in cities — to provide their services to women and their families in more rural locations.

At the same time, mHealth projects promise to deliver a far-reaching and significant impact on women as mobile phone use expands throughout the country,. Mobile phones can be used to educate women about their pregnancy and provide information on when and where to seek care – the kind of knowledge that can mean the difference between life and death.

As part of its 10-year, $500 million initiative to accelerate the global effort to end preventable deaths during pregnancy and childbirth, Merck for Mothers is developing interventions that complement the Digital India program.

In Uttar Pradesh, Merck is working with Pathfinder International and World Health Partners to use telemedicine to connect women in rural communities with doctors in nearby cities. These doctors use their phones, tablets and computers to provide remote care.

In Jharkhand, Merck is partnering with White Ribbon Alliance India and Gram Vaani to pilot a free phone-based platform that teaches women what to look for in quality maternal health care, and then lets them rate providers on the quality of that care.

The ratings offer an incentive for providers to ensure quality care the same way that crowd-sourced review websites like TripAdvisor and Yelp encourage hotels and restaurants to focus on providing a quality customer experience.

India’s journey to become a global power is a long one, made longer by its burden of maternal death. When he described this journey in his Independence Day address, Modi used the imagery of a road, noting that development is India’s only path forward, paved with values like respect for girls and women as it winds toward a better future.

It’s heartening to see the government’s commitment to these values reflected in initiatives like Digital India, an effort that extends the country’s spirit of innovation to its most vulnerable citizens and that clears the way for safe pregnancies and healthy childbirths and enabling girls and women to take the driver’s seat.

Dr. Naveen Rao directs Merck for Mothers, a 10-year, $500 million initiative to reduce maternal mortality worldwide.

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