Mama always said there are at least two sides to every story. When we’re talking about cellular phones and health, there are many aspects to consider, pro and con.

Mobile phones make sense when we think about peoples’ health: health doesn’t just happen when someone’s in the doctor’s exam room; it happens every minute of every day when people make decisions about what to eat, whether to exercise (or take a few stairs at work between floors), when to take a pill, what to buy at the grocery store, and other activities that make up the normal activities of daily living.

On the positive side of the wellness ledger, there’s a proliferation of new health applications that run over wireless networks to mobile phones. The cell phone can be an enabler of health on a daily basis. For example, in Japan there’s a new phone set from KDDI called Au that incorporates GPS and motion sensors that calculates steps and calories – a kind of turbocharged pedometer that automatically sends the distance covered and calories expended to a computer server. Then music can be downloaded on the handset that’s good for workouts, as well as other functions that encourage healthy behaviors. DoCoMo’s also offering up Bluetooth-enabled health applications via their telecoms network in Japan such as blood pressure monitoring and data transmission. See more on this at Network World.

There are other health/phone apps for health coming from SaskTel and Alcatel-Lucent, the Canadian and European telecoms companies. The alliance has launched LifeStat Remote Monitoring and Health Management which monitors blood glucose and blood pressure numbers and transmits the health data to caregivers. The project is called Salveo and is being jointly funded by the two companies. Their plan is to market LifeStat DTC and DTproviders in Canada via SaskTel, and Alcatel-Lucent will market the platform to all comers outside of Canada. They’re looking into applications for major chronic conditions such as asthma, congestive heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

In India, yet another new mobile health application is mobile yoga. A new avatar based on the Bollywood actress named Shilpa Shetty is teaching yoga positions over the cell phone via various networks including Airtel, Vodafone, BPL, Tata, and other wireless providers. The one-hour video clips (each covering one asana, or yoga posture) can be downloaded for just over $2 (99 Rupees).

Phones can also be used as cardiac defibrillators. There’s a patent filed for an electrode-equipped cell phone that can function as a defibrillator to deliver shocks to the heart. The phone system also has a GPS system which sends a signal to EMS.

Of course, iPhone has a host of applications that continue to be added to the health menu. These include My Life Record, a PHR; ePocrates’s many functions; MyNetDiary, a food diary (and research shows that if you write down everything you eat, you are more successful at losing weight); iPharmacy, a drug database; and, a symptom navigator that supports self-diagnosis for the truly empowered (or cyberchondriacal).

On the negative side of the health ledger comes the World Health Organization, which is releasing a study in two years about the relationship between cell phones and brain cancer. WHO has already warned employees via memo to limit children’s cell phone use. The study is focusing on the relationship between electromagnetic fields emitted from cell phones and kids’ health. According to WHO, in 2004, 21% of children aged between 8 and 10, and 36% of children between 11 and 14, had cell phones.

Another health hazard of cell phones is their role in traffic accidents. An excellent story in the Chicago Tribune summarizes the latest data on phones and traffic accidents. On the positive front, the phone has an “ICE” contact – in case of emergency. On the other hand, Carnegie Mellon researchers have found that listening to a cell phone reduces by 37% the brain activity associated with driving.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: Given the ubiquity of and preference among consumers for the cell phone, the device could serve as a very useful platform for supporting positive health behaviors among people across society. The health applications would not replace the physician and other clinicians, but be helpful adjuncts in supporting people in their 24×7 worlds.

On the issue of whether cellular phone technology in and of itself leads to adverse health outcomes, it seems one way to manage potential health risks would be to issue Bluetooth or other head sets with mobile phones to avoid direct contact between the ear and the phone set — particularly for children (savvy kid-marketers could design really slick mobile phone headsets that kids would actually want to use). This may get short shrift from libertarian-minded people who, say, also protest the use of helmets when driving motorcycles.