In the developing world, patient communications are the key to massive improvements in public health and managing disease outbreaks. Many systems are created by developers voluntarily, using platforms like Twilio that are designed to make it easier.
In recent years outbreaks of eBola, for example, were contained thanks to the ability of communications service operators to mobilise information and direct people to local health workers. In Ghana MedNet has helped thousands of people get care through a new system of ‘pop up doctors’.
The short message system (SMS), one of the most rudimentary apps on a mobile, offers the potential for more mobile health apps as citizen developers feel less daunted about created useful systems.
Developers in a movement known as Random Hacks of Kindness (RHK) connect technologies with social impact organisations across the world, such as Humanitarian aid body Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF). MSF responds to disasters and disease outbreaks across the world through its medical supplies and health workers. Most of MSF’s activity is concentrated on creating new programmes to improve health systems in developing countries.
Developers at RHK organised an event for the Epworth Clinic in Zimbabwe to mobilise care patients with a communications system which helped 300 tuberculosis (TB) patients. The majority of Epworth’s 400,000 population are below the official poverty line and under these conditions the rates of HIV and TB are dangerously high. The Epworth Clinic currently supports around 10,000 HIV positive patients and up to around 500 TB patients at any one time.
Patients need regular check-ups and a consistent medication but with these numbers and the severity of conditions, it’s hard for staff and patients to keep on-top of appointments and dosing. One in seven TB patients used to drop out of treatment within six months when the manager was paper based.
However, most patients had access to a mobile phone so volunteer developers created Nimtone, a web app that clinics use to send automated text messages to remind patients about appointments. In turn clinicians use the system to update information about patients and review daily activities. When the app’s pilot programme ran for 300 TB patients the rate of missed appointments fell by half. From then on there were no reports of missed appointments.
An unexpected bonus of this text messaging system was that it gave patients legitimate proof of a medical appointment, which made it easier for them to get permission to leave work. After this initial trial 98% of patients said they wanted to continue getting the message reminders so the service has been adopted. The app is to be rolled out to other projects across the 71 nations where MSF offers medical humanitarian assistance.
This is an example of how developers for the mobile communications industry use their know-how to create Tech for Good.
Simple mobile apps are helping to solve problems across Africa, says Precious Lunga, Epidemiologist at the Medical Research Council in the UK. While in the West there may be around 3 doctors for every thousand people, the proportion in Africa is typically one twentieth of that.
One of the problems created by limited access to medicine is that many desperate patients are being conned into accepting fake medication in Nigeria. These rogue supplies can be fatal. An app developed on Twilio by Mednet has created a way to verify drugs. Anyone with a smart phone can take a picture of the drug packaging and send it to Mednet which can text back a verdict on the drug’s veracity.
Meanwhile, another form of mobile preventative medicine has been rolled out in Ghana and Uganda. Developer Innocent Udeogu, best known for creating the fashion web site Oncenout, used his expertise to create an educational system for mobiles, Ubenwa, which gives parents help and advice. One of its major achievements has been to help many parents save their newborn children from potential birth asphyxia situations. Meanwhile another app, Econet Health Tips, has widened access to professional medical help with 500,000 people using this service to chat to GPs and source trustworthy, medical advice from qualified health professionals.
Any developers who’d like to use their technical expertise to help others can start to mobile their good intentions here.