Monday, October 7, 2013

How an old, not-so-smart phone can be used for health care in Africa

Throughout the Grace Hopper Celebration, I attended various talks in various realms of study, like new technologies and research, how to make the most of your career, and gender issues.  The below talk is definitely one of the more inspirational ones I went to.  The speakers really showed how such simple, outdated technology here can be changing lives for the better somewhere else.  Below is my summary and impressions

Talk: "Software and Not So Smart Phones Providing Health Services in Africa BoF"
Facilitators: Charlene Tshitoka and Liandra Bassiane (Thoughtworks)

Not everyone can afford a smartphone.  Most people can't, and in Africa, it isn't really a priority when you can use and reuse a simple phone until the battery completely gives out.  Those who want to use mobile technology to improve health care must use simple phone technologies... and it's making a big difference.

Not-so-smart phones have speech and text; internet and data is expensive.  The basic phone is shared in a community, passed down and reused until the phone is completely dead.  So how can we use simple SMS messages to improve health care?

30% of the medication is fake, and thousands of people die each year from counterfeit drugs.  How can a consumer pick up medication and be completely sure that this medicine will help them get better? mPedigree ( allows users to check the authenticity of their medicine by scratching a one-time-use code on the bottle, texting the code in, and receiving a text back with whether the drug is genuine or not.  Pharmaceutical companies pay for this service since they don't want counterfeiters selling drugs under their names.

Motech ( is like an open-source mobile midwife service.  Pregnant women can sign up with the service, and receive reminders about their appointments, as well as information about their pregnancy.  There is a strong culture and women tend to trust in what their elders tell them.  Sometimes what they pass down are little things like, "if you eat too much fruit during your pregnancy, then your child will grow up to be a thief." When the women receive texts and calls from health professionals, they can learn what helps their pregnancies and what hinders it.  The service keeps in touch after the child is born, calling and asking after the health of the woman and child.

In India, millions of women wish to avoid getting pregnant, but they do not have access to effective and affordable methods.  CycleTel ( a simple service provided by ThoughtWorks which sends texts to women informing them about their menstrual cycle using the Standard Days Method.  Women can make their own choices about whether or not they want to have children and when.

There are some problems that arise when considering mobile health options:
Confidentiality. If a phone is being shared, how can we send confidential information?  Most services send a unique password during registration, and only the person with the password can access their information
Standardization.  There are multiple phone companies, and the application has to be available with every one.
User experience.  People need to want to use your application, or they won't.
User adoption.  Most people are used to face-to-face communication, but that's not always possible.  Usually a trusted health-care workers recommends the application and helps the person register.