Original Research

Ethical considerations of mobile phone use by patients in KwaZulu-Natal: Obstacles for mHealth?

Caron L. Jack, Maurice Mars
African Journal of Primary Health Care & Family Medicine | Vol 6, No 1 | a607 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/phcfm.v6i1.607 | © 2014 Caron L. Jack, Maurice Mars | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 16 October 2013 | Published: 13 August 2014

About the author(s)

Caron L. Jack, Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
Maurice Mars, Department of TeleHealth, Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa


Background: mHealth has the potential to facilitate telemedicine services, particularly in the developing world. Concern has been expressed about the confidentiality of health information that is relayed by mobile phone.

Aim: We examined the habits and practices of mobile phone use by patients in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Methods: We conducted a descriptive survey of two patient populations: 137 urban patients attending private practitioners and 139 patients in remote rural areas attending outpatient departments in Government-funded hospitals. The questionnaire covered several domains: demographics, mobile phone use, privacy and confidentiality and future use for health-related matters.

Results: Two hundred and seventy-six patients completed the questionnaire. We found that a third of our participants shared their mobile phone with others, 24% lent their phone to others and more than half received health-related messages for other people. Mobile phone theft was common, as was number changing. Thirty-eight percent of the people were not able to afford airtime for more than a week in the past year and 22% of rural patients were unable to keep their phone charged. Mobile phone signal coverage was significantly worse in the rural areas than in urban areas.

Conclusion: This study highlights the legal and ethical ramifications that these practices and findings will have on mHealth programmes in our setting. Healthcare providers and regulators will need to consider how patients use and manage their mobile phones when developing services and regulations.


mHealth, mobile phones, confidentiality, regulation, ethics, telemedicine, South Africa.


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