Linking physicians to a single network has profound implications for a country’s health care system. With that in mind, Brian Levine, a fourth year medical student at the New York University school of medicine, decided to set up an online social networking site so doctors all over Ghana could collaborate with each other.
The network would also be available to physicians in New York who were treating West African patients. But when Levine arrived in Ghana, he found that the necessary technological infrastructure did not exist and he could not set up such a site. He says the biggest problem was a lack of access “to computers and the Internet…..” During his initial visits to local clinics, Levine realized that most doctors did not have a computer.
He set out to seek a more widely used technology and his next option made more sense -- cell phones. He says statistics show that more than 80 million Africans use cell phones and their proliferation even in rural areas makes them the most accessible technology available. So he sought out a cell phone provider in Ghana to create a cell phone network. ”I realized that for it to be successful, it had to be either cheap or free,” he says.
He approached the management of Ghana Telecom, which owns One-Touch Mobile. “We [agreed] that the only way to achieve this was to remove the barrier of cost,” Levine says. All registered doctors would be given access to the new network, known as “Medicare Line,” on which they would make free phone calls to each other.
He also worked with the Ghana Medical Association to coordinate with the more than 2000 doctors who are members. They all received the “one touch chip,” which they can use in their cell phone handsets each time they call another doctor.
Levine says the project has been very successful, with over a million phone calls made on the free network so far. Doctors are using it for referrals and consultations among themselves. Also, doctors in working in rural areas are able to keep up with their colleagues in cities. Levine says if there is a level of satisfaction among medical practitioners, fewer doctors will leave their profession “and there will be less brain drain in Africa.”
The network also supports text messaging, and the Ghana medical association can send out announcements to its members. “If a disaster like an epidemic strikes, the association can communicate for a quick response,” Levine says – and adds that this feature is the first of its kind anywhere in the world.
He says the idea can be replicated in other parts of Africa where there is a cell phone company “that has a social agenda as part of its corporate goals.”
Levine hopes to expand the project to include neighboring countries. He says it will lead to an improved health care system in a country with only 2000 doctors for a population of 22 million.
In a few months he begins his residency in the United States, where he will use the same network to monitor HIV compliance