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Physician Uses Cell Phones to Bring Health Care to the Poor

Joel Selanikio

Joel Selanikio

Epidemiologist Joel Selanikio has used the explosion in mobile phone technology and the World Wide Web to deliver more effective public health services throughout the developing world. Dr. Selanikio and his organization are making a difference by improving the medical information available to public health programs in under-served areas of the world. VOA has a profile for this week's Making a Difference series.

In Africa there is another use for mobile phones. Public Health workers in Kenya are now using mobile phones to gather health information from patients in remote areas and upload it to the internet for instant analysis at distant centers.

And it is all happening thanks to Dr. Joel Selanikio. "You can really make a difference using just common modern information technologies," he said.

Dr. Selanikio first noticed the need to better use information technology for health care while working as a disease outbrake investigator for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I began to take the first steps toward using things like pocket computers or PDAs [i.e., personal digital assistants] for doing field work," Selanikio said.

Dr. Selanikio left his position five years ago to co-found with partner Rosa Donna -- as a non-profit organization dedicated to providing sustainable information technologies in poor areas. And with financial support from the United Nations Foundation and the Vodaphone Foundation, Selanikio developed EpiSurveyor -- a free, mobile, Web-based and open-source data collection tool that is transforming the way public health is practiced in under-served areas of the world.

EpiSurveyor replaces cumbersome and costly paper-based data collection that can take months, and sometimes years to produce results.

"Instead of collecting data today to plan for a campaign next year, changing from that to collecting data today to plan for what we do tomorrow," Selanikio explained. "That is a pretty radical change."

Public health relies on the rapid collection of accurate data to track disease outbreaks, monitor vaccine supplies and other similar functions.

"The issue of flexibility, we need that," Data Manager Yusuf Ajack Ibrahim said. Ajack is with Kenya's Health and Sanitation Ministry and saw EpiSurveyor at work when a polio outbreak in 2006 was quickly contained, saving the lives of perhaps hundreds of children. "If you are to respond to an outbreak, I cannot wait for somebody to come all the way from the United States," he said.

This year, Joel Selanikio received the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability in recognition of these innovations. EpiSurveyor is being used by more than 500 organizations in more than 100 countries, and it is being adopted for use in areas such as agriculture and public opinion polling.

(This video report was narrated by Francis Alanzo)