Not-So-Smart Phones Providing Health Services in Africa

Attending this year’s Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing for the first time, I was inspired meeting the passionate and talented individuals and hearing their stories.  Fellow ThoughtWorkers’, Liandra Bassiane and Charlene Tshitoka, session Not So Smart Phones Providing Health Services in Africa, proved to be one of the most inspiring moments of the conference and another reminder as to why I joined ThoughtWorks.  

Liandra, business analyst, and Charlene, developer, talked about how basic phones can and should be used in Africa to provide mobile health services. Although smart phone applications can be much more sophisticated than simple SMS-based applications, the “coolness” factor has little value to those who can’t afford smart phones and don’t have access to the internet. And that is the majority of the African population. 70% of sub-saharan Africa lives below $2 per day and the majority live in rural areas.  Even more problematic, Africa represents 14% of the world’s population, carries 25% of the world’s disease burden, but contributes to just 1.3% of the world health workforce. That means there are significantly more sick people than the current population of medical professionals can handle.

Liandra and Charlene shared success stories of mobile health applications to demonstrate the impact technology can have in the Global South.  And how through the use of basic phones, millions of lives in Africa can be impacted.  The average smart phone can cost nearly double the price in Africa compared to its price in the US. A basic phone, however, can be purchased for $8 USD.  Because of this price gap, smart phones make up only 17% of the market share in Africa.  Additionally, the telecommunication infrastructure is so poor in rural areas, these basic phones can even become the source of communication for an entire community.

Mobile Technology for Community Health (MoTECH) is an example of two mobile health services to provide education and care to new and expectant mothers.  MoTECH provides SMS or voice messages to deliver time-specific information about pregnancy and post-pregnancy in the women’s native language in order to provide information, advice and overall the promotion of good health practices while pregnant or after giving birth.

Liandra and Charlene then discussed our client mPedigree, another mobile health service, which helps safeguard against counterfeit drugs. More than 700,000 people die annually from counterfeit tuberculosis and malaria medicine in Africa; and more than 30% of all medications in Africa are counterfeit.  mPedigree allows people to use SMS technology to validate the medications they have are not counterfeit. This technology has not only helped the end-consumer but the entire supply chain, validating the drug from the manufacturer to distributor to pharmacy, and ensuring fake medication does not enter the distribution chain.  

What’s next for mobile health services? We still have a long way to go; however, hearing these example at Grace Hopper inspired me and I hope inspired you. By focusing on how mobile technology can impact the masses, we can improve and save lives, in Africa, and across the world.

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