Innovation That Matters

Health care via SMS in the developing world


Cell phones may have changed the way people communicate in the developed world, but in developing countries they’re going far beyond simple communication to bring new opportunities to areas that sorely need them. Case in point: FrontlineSMS:Medic, a new initiative to improve health care in poor, rural villages. Due to a global shortage of some 4.4 million healthcare professionals, as estimated by the World Health Organization, many rural health centers in poor regions depend largely on community health workers who travel among clinics and villages. Such health workers typically record patient interactions on paper and then bring those records to a central clinic for further instruction. Many travel on foot, however, and—because they serve such large areas—often don’t get back to the clinic more than once a month. The result: some patients remain untreated for far too long. Launched in February, FrontlineSMS:Medic aims to improve matters using FrontlineSMS, a free, open-source software program that enables large-scale, two-way text messaging using only a laptop, a GSM modem and cell phones. Working with donations collected through Hope Phones, the initiative places a laptop running FrontlineSMS in a central clinic and then distributes cell phones to community health workers. Workers are trained in sending text messages to hospital staff to request drug dosing information or treatment instruction, for example, or provide status updates on a particular patient. Modified camera phones, meanwhile, can be used to analyze blood and sputum samples and perform critical diagnostics for conditions including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. In a recent, 6-month pilot test of the system at a hospital in Malawi, 150 patients received emergency care, community health workers saved 1,000 hours of travel time—allowing them to visit more patients—the number of people being treated for tuberculosis doubled, and the hospital saved USD 3,500 worth of fuel, freeing up funds to purchase more medication. Operating the system, meanwhile, requires an investment of just USD 500, according to an article in the Guardian. Since the Malawi pilot, California-based FrontlineSMS:Medic has launched numerous other projects throughout Africa and beyond through partnerships with global health organizations. High-tech, health care and socially focused entrepreneurs: one to get involved in? (Related: Microfinancing and mentoring via mobile phonesQuick tasks via SMS for phone users in the developing world.)



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