Delivering Health-care via Texting

In the past few years, mobile phones have been taking on a new purpose in the developing world. Being a relatively cheap tool for communication and increasingly accessible, mobile phones are being used to transmit medical information and deliver health care in remote areas. There are several organizations currently exploring the potential for mobile phones to expand the current reaches of health care.

One organization, FrontlineSMS:Medic, uses three major components to create a network of communication between clinics and people far from medical care. The heart of the network is a software program, FrontlineSMS, which creates a large-scale two-way text messaging network through a laptop. This software, used with a GSM (global system for mobile communication) modem and cell phones, completes the platform for communication. With the laptop and modem based at a central clinic and mobile phones distributed to community health workers (CHWs) stationed at remote villages, the system enables fast, real-time communication between remote areas and clinics.

FrontlineSMS: Medic began as a result of a six-month pilot program in Malawi in the summer of 2008, which successfully integrated the use of cell phone technology into a central hospital’s regular care. They have since identified several sites in Africa, Central America, and now Asia to expand their efforts.

In Asia, Bangladesh has been pinpointed as an ideal starting ground on the basis of three major factors:

1. Bangladesh has experienced a boom in cell phone technology over the past decade;

2. Bangladesh has high incidence of death and suffering from preventable diseases and;

3. many nationals live in remote areas far from health centers.

Through partnership with the Smiling Sun Franchise Program, a USAID-funded initiative with clinics throughout Bangladesh, FrontlineSMS:Medic has a base from which to implement the text message-based care.

Currently, FrontlineSMS:Medic uses the technology and infrastructure for a variety of purposes, including remote requests for medication, patient or CHW queries, request for immediate care, transmittal of medical information for detection and potential treatment of preventable diseases, among others.

The organization also has plans for development and expansion in its services offered. One possible development is FrontlineGIS, a collaboration with the Ushahidi GPS mapping system to create an application that would monitor geographic locations of text messages from the CHWs. Ultimately, monitoring locations of the messages would provide a general mapping of the incidence of different diseases. Another innovation is FrontlineMRS, an expansion with OpenMRS, an open-source, electronic medical system framework, which would allow for patient medical records to be managed remotely by CHWs. And finally, Cellophone is also being developed to test blood and sputum samples using a modified camera phone for diseases including HIV/AIDS,
tuberculosis, and malaria.

Judging from the success of the six-month pilot project in Malawi, where the central hospital equipped with the FrontlineSMS network currently uses text messaging as an essential method for patient care, text message-based care is on the rise and will continue to grow and develop.

Author: Seema Khan, Finance Associate, Give2Asia