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Cell Phones Come to Rescue of Africa's Health Sector


Patients in Liberia can now benefit from better connected doctors.

Patients in Liberia can now benefit from better connected doctors.

Several U.S. non profit organizations are releasing new products to use in Africa to help governments and health practitioners improve their health systems with mobile phone technology.

The Washington-based Medic Mobile non profit recently released a video promoting a test version of one of its new products called PatientView. Its aim is to give hospitals in rural African areas the ability to manage patient information through cell phones.

At a recent conference in Washington, an executive with Medic Mobile's sister organization Frontline SMS, Sean McDonald, talked about another project in the testing stage, which would turn camera enabled cell phones into diagnostic tools.

"What they are doing with these phones is they are taking pictures of people and then running them through databases to give completely automated diagnostics so there is hospital quality care in places where all you need is a camera with a phone and a signal," he said.

Some of the cell phone applications being worked on would allow for malaria testing of photographed blood samples within 10 seconds.

Eric Woods, the founder of a non profit organization called Switchboard, is partnering with cell phone communication providers in Ghana and Liberia to let doctors use the phones they already have for free doctor to doctor calls and text messaging.

"We are piggybacking on what doctors are already using. But we are just giving them new ways to collaborate with one another," Woods said.

Woods explains doctors can also access a free doctor directory as part of a service called MDNet.

In turn, the communication companies are getting new clients, and now want to expand the service to nurses as well. Woods says a new product in Ghana called Ensembl, expected later this year, will create a web platform where every doctor can instantly receive and send messages.

"So essentially, someone at the Ministry of Health or the Ghana Health Services could log onto a web interface if there is a disease outbreak across the country, in a specific region or district, they can target those particular physicians and send out an SMS message that says there is a measles outbreak in your area please make sure you have the Vitamin A, the antibiotics on hand to be able to handle this outbreak," he said.

A former regional director for the International Development Research Center in east and southern Africa, Connie Freeman, says such innovations seem to be following the right path.

"I am delighted that these organizations are out and essentially trying to adapt the technologies to the local situation rather than the reverse. My experience in the field is that everybody always wanted us to take on the latest technology, including in my office and included for me, and it did not work. It did not work because of bandwidth, because of electricity outages. But Africans are very creative in the use of technology. They are very creative in finding solutions because they have had to find solutions over time. They do not have as many tools," Freeman said.

Woods from the San Francisco-based non-profit Switchboard says he noticed relationships are key to get a program going.

"Government, the health care workers, I think that is the real critical piece, so just make sure you understand what are the country's priorities. I think we want to make sure we are supporting the work that the Ministry of Health has slated as its top priorities, make sure you are supporting the work that needs to get done and then just really involving them with the whole process," Woods said.

Woods says he hopes to expand his programs to other African countries as well. Other cell phone uses in the health field developed by non profits which have become more commonplace in Africa include receiving a text message for a doctor's appointment, text messages for blood results, and messages to remind patients to take their medication.

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