News / Africa

Smart Phones Improve Access to Health Information

Andrew Green
KAMPALA, Uganda  - The widespread affordability of cell phones in developing countries, like Uganda, has led to experiments with voice and text message-driven health campaigns.  Now mobile phone technology has become an important tool for groups looking to reach even the most rural communities. 

The first campaign that Text to Change -- or TTC -- conducted in 2007 was a quiz about HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.  15,000 Ugandans received text messages with questions about the virus and were encouraged to respond.  They also received texts telling them about nearby HIV counseling and testing services.

The result was a 40-percent increase in the number of people who showed up for testing at the highlighted centers.  Bas Hoefman, one of the founders of TTC, says the campaign demonstrated the possibilities for using mobile technology to improve health care in the region -- a concept commonly called "mHealth".

"The importance of mHealth in Uganda, and in Africa in general, is that people leapfrogged from nothing to mobile phones.  So all of a sudden, you have the huge potential to reach out to people with mobile phones with health information," explained Hoefman.

Since its initial campaign, TTC has worked with partner organizations to run increasingly refined projects about a range of health issues.  The group collects cell phone numbers through radio advertisements or on-the-ground canvassing and then sends out texts or voice messages through a platform it built.

Some campaigns encourage people to share their knowledge about specific issues so organizations can better tailor their messages.  Other efforts use texts to remind people to take their medicines.

Eunice Namirembe is a program manager at TTC.  She says an important part of crafting the campaigns is going out to targeted communities to get a sense of what kinds of content will work best.

"When you go down to the community, you find that the challenges are different.  The mobile coverage is different.  The language they understand is different.  Then you start interviewing them about what type of content they need.  In what language do they need it?  When do they want to receive these messages," Namirembe explained. "Because the timing is very important."

Kawempe Home Care, based in one of Kampala's poorer neighborhoods, provides health services to people living with HIV, cancer and tuberculosis. 

Dr. Samuel Guma, the executive director of the organization, says it is critical for all of his patients to adhere to a regular treatment schedule.  In 2010,  a trial campaign with TTC targeting HIV patients was introduced. "We sent our patients text messages everyday.  Actually, twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, basically to remind them that's when they're supposed to take their medicine," he said. "The outcomes were really fantastic.  Actually, we saw a drastic increase in average adherence of our patients."

Five years after he started the organization, Hoefman says groups like Kawempe Home Care have demonstrated that technology is a viable tool for improving health care.

This week, a summit in Cape Town has brought many of those groups together to discuss the future of health and technology.  

Hoefman says TTC is keeping an eye on evolving technology, but for the immediate future plans to stick with voice and text messages, because they have been proven to work.  Even those modes still contain some hurdles that have to be overcome.

Despite the widespread use of cell phones in many developing countries, hundreds of thousands of people do not have access to them.  Or, in Uganda, husbands sometimes retain control of the phone, making it difficult for targeted messages to reach women.  Paul Hamilton, the chief of party for Management Sciences for Health in Uganda, worked with TTC on a handwashing campaign in two districts.

He says many people did not have access to phones, so they chose to provide information through handwritten forms. "So that's something we need to look at further before we really scale this up and see SMS technology as a way where we can spread as widely," Hoefman said. "Now, having said that, I think the potential is there."

 As cell phone coverage continue to grow, Hoefman says so will the possibilities for health.

You May Like

US, China Have Dueling Definitions of Cybersecurity

Analysts say attribution or or proving that a particular individual or government is responsible for a hack, is a daunting task More

Snowden: I'd Go to Prison to Return to US

Former NSA contractor says he has not received a formal plea-deal offer from US officials, who consider him to be a traitor More

Goodbye Pocahontas: Photos Reveal Today's Real Native Americans

Weary of stereotypes, photographer Matika Wilbur is determined to reshape the public's perception of her people More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Making a Minti
October 07, 2015 4:17 AM
While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video Self-Driving Cars Getting Closer

We are at the dawn of the robotic car age and should start getting used to seeing self-driving cars, at least on highways. Car and truck manufacturers are now running a tight race to see who will be the first to hit the street, while some taxicab companies are already planning to upgrade their fleets. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Clinton Seeks to Boost Image Before Upcoming Debate

The five announced Democratic party presidential contenders meet in their first debate next Tuesday in Las Vegas, Nevada. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton continues to lead the Democratic field, but she is getting a stronger-than-expected challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.

Video Music Brings Generations Together

When musicians over the age of 50 headline a rock concert, you expect to see baby boomer fans in the audience. Boomer rock stars have boomer fans. Millennial rock stars have millennial fans. But this isn’t always the case. Take the Lockn’ Music festival which took place in mid-September in rural Arrington, Virginia. Here, Jacquelyn de Phillips discovered two generations of people who are considered quite different in the outside world, spending 4 days together in music-loving harmony.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video South Carolina Reels Under Worst-ever Flooding

South Carolina is reeling from the worst flooding in recorded history that forced residents from their homes and left thousands without drinking water and electricity. Parts of the state, including the capital, Columbia, received about 60 centimeters of rain in just a couple of days. Authorities warn that the end of rain does not mean the end of danger, as it will take days for the water to recede. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs