By Jason Kohn, Contributing Columnist
I’ve been writing about mobile services in developing countries, and mHealth in particular, for a while now. But recently I had my first opportunity to speak to someone on the ground making it happen: Maeghan Orton of Medic Mobile.
Medic Mobile has a unique model. The company doesn’t focus on one specific mHealth application. Rather, it provides a mobile software and technology platform for putting mHealth tools in the hands of community health workers (CHWs), and lets organizations find innovative ways to use them.
“Our niche is open source and familiar technologies that focus on reinforcing health systems and health infrastructure through community health workers, who are typically the frontline individuals in healthcare in rural settings,” says Orton.
Clearly, there’s a huge opportunity for this kind of platform. Because while millions of people in rural areas and developing economies have little or no access to a doctor, they do have mobile phones. The Cisco VNI Service Adoption Forecast estimates there will be 4.5 billion mobile consumers by 2016, including 779 million users in Africa and the Middle East and 2.5 billion in Asia Pacific.
By empowering those users and the CHWs who provide the bulk of their care with short message service (SMS)-based healthcare information and services, Medic Mobile believes they can help usher in major improvements in health outcomes.
How it Works
At the heart of the Medic Mobile model is a unique technology platform called Muvuku. Muvuku uses parallel SIM cards, which fit underneath standard cell phone SIM cards, to support SIM-based applications. These applications can then run on any GSM phone – from smartphones to $10 handsets.
The applications can provide checklists, care protocols, reminders, and other tools and information to CHWs, as well as the patients they serve. Medic Mobile also provides tools to collect and display this SMS data at local and regional hospitals.
mHealth in Action
Medic Mobile applications are now operating in 23 counties—working with 8,000 frontline health workers, who in turn touch the lives of more than 700,000 patients. And they’re already making a difference. Take one pilot program in Kurnool, India, designed to improve childhood immunization rates by sending mothers SMS reminders.
“Immunization is a huge challenge in rural settings,” says Orton. “In the community where we were working, the baseline was that around 60 percent of the children were fully immunized. After six months with a really simple reminder system where an SMS was sent to the mother or grandmother in the home, we actually had the immunization rate go up to 99 percent, and over the past year, it’s at 100 percent. We’ve seen similar results in our communities around different parts of Africa.”
This is just one example. Other Medic Mobile projects and pilots include:
- Helping CHWs identify symptoms of TB in Malawi
- Supporting traditional birth attendants in Mexico City
- Getting fast emergency help to victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti
- Improving drug stock reporting in Senegal
- Identifying vaccine refrigerators that aren’t working in Kenya
Tapping the Potential of mHealth
It seems like there is no shortage of ways that mHealth can help people, especially in the developing world. But, there are still barriers preventing these applications from having the impact they otherwise might. The biggest: access to reliable wireless infrastructure in many parts of the developing world.
“We often run into situations where someone has a great idea to run a new program using mobile phones, but they haven’t gone into these communities to ask community members how often they have stable mobile service, and how stable their SMS or voice connection is,” says Orton. “So groups might go develop a concept for mHealth, receive funding, and then they actually start to implement their concept and realize the solution does not work because of low connectivity. I think as an industry, we need
to come to an agreement about what is good due diligence before you begin to implement innovative mHealth concepts. That sort of unified perspective should be required before you assume that you have designed a stable system to deliver healthcare through.”
This is not to say we have to wait until there is perfect coverage across the developing world before we can take advantage of mHealth. Maeghan told me some amazing anecdotes about the lengths people will go to take advantage of cellular-based health services – from standing near a specific tree in a village to send and receive messages, to doctors at a Kenyan hospital hanging their cell phones on a wall every day, because that was the only place they could get a reliable signal.
Bottom line, the potential for mHealth applications, especially in rural and developing economies, is just too powerful to ignore. And, as mobile phones become even more ubiquitous, that potential will only grow.
“We’ve created a tool that more advanced healthcare technologies can build on,” says Orton. “We view it as a strategic point of integration, where you allow those who have the least amount of clinical knowledge and access to be part of a system that really, really needs their information, their perspective, and their voice.”
Be sure to check out some of the amazing stories on the Medic Mobile blog about the impact Maeghan and her colleagues are having around the world.
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What is VNI-SA? It is the Service Adoption forecast portion of our popular VNI research. VNI-SA studies the end user adoption rate for a wide variety of services around the world. Read more at http://www.cisco.com/go/vnisa