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Medic Mobile: Powerful Tools for Local Health Workers

January 26, 2013 - 4 Comments

Jason Kohn

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.

'Muvuku SIM technology' technology uses parallel SIM cards

‘Muvuku’ technology uses parallel SIM cards

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.”

CHW's train on new phones

Community health worker’s train on new phones

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

Hospital staff hang their cell phones on the wall in the morning to get their SMS messages for the day.

Hospital staff hang their cell phones on the wall in the morning to get their SMS messages for the day.

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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  1. Couldn't agree more, Deborah. It seems so easy to get caught up in technology's growth stats without bringing it back to what it means to people and end customers. Which is why case studies or success stories that tell real examples with real results have always been so popular -- and always will.

  2. Thanks David. What I find is often lacking in the mound of data and facts we often hear about in regard to growth of broadband and mobile access, is 'why does it matter?' I want to understand what new opportunities have been created as a consequence of the growth. How is it making a difference to individuals and their communities. The stats and numbers themselves are just noise until you can connect it the impact it is having.

  3. I find this fascinating and confirms my experiences in high tech marketing and communications: all the buzz in media and the blogosphere and among the tech early adopters often focuses on the cutting edge, but forgets that the bulk of the adoption curve is way behind. In the rush to focus development on the Smartphones and iphones, we often forget that 50% of mobile phone owners (Nielsen) still only have phones that support SMS. So great opportunities still exist such as Jason's great examples to exploit this huge installed base.

    • Thank you David, I completely agree. It's easy to get caught up in the most advanced, cutting-edge applications in the places that are saturated with broadband. But some of the most innovative work is being done in Africa and other developing economies, where people cut out the noise and get right to the point: what do people need and how can we use the tools we have available to give it to them? In a lot of cases, people in these markets are not just waiting for under-developed traditional infrastructure to catch up; they're finding ways to leapfrog it. It's very cool stuff.