Medic Mobile : technology at the frontline

In the technology business we’re hearing more great stories more often of innovation and entrepreneurship. Clever apps, connected devices, consumer mHealth embraced by the Lycra crowd, opportunities abound; tech’s winning, the world over. Undeniably, it’s fun for us as consumers. Entrepreneurs are being rewarded and the economy generally, is benefitting.

A growing number of people doing well, does not imply more people are doing good, but the story of Medic Mobile is inspirational because of their innovative use of technology and its impact on public health in remote regions of developing countries.

In 2010 a group of students from Stanford and Lewis & Clark in Oregon ran a pilot of the open-source software FrontlineSMS to co-ordinate community health workers at St Gabriel’s Hospital outside Namitete in Malawi.  FrontlineSMS allows community volunteers, medical personnel, patients and families to communicate more efficiently. Co-ordination of treatment has improved dramatically, particularly the palliative care offered by St Gabriel’s. 2010 was a big year at St Gabriel’s Hospital in Malawi. Founded in 1959 by the Carmelites , three years ago this small rural hospital got its first motorcycle ambulances – lessening the discomfort that patients would experience when being transported by the more traditional bicycle or ox-cart. Some accommodation was added for staff and the hospital got a new X-Ray machine and completed a new operating theatre. This year, St Gabriel’s will treat around 50,000 people.

Medic Mobile wasn’t started by software developers or even medical doctors—but by passionate people who ‘enjoyed tinkering’. Following that early successes in at St Gabriel’s, they have helped thirty or more organisations apply technology to improve health services in more than fifteen countries including Nepal and Bangladesh.

“Medic Mobile uses communication technologies to improve the health of under-served and disconnected communities. We see communication gaps through the eyes of community-based health workers and patients, guiding our partners towards low-cost technologies and efficient health services.”

— Our Mission, Medic Mobile

The Medic Mobile toolkit now includes software they have developed as well as open-source software from other organisations. In June 2010, they released a Beta plug-in of PatientView, which empowers hospital personnel to manage patient information via low-end devices in rural environments, requiring just SMS for communication – a crucial feature where broadband, wired or wireless, is limited. An incredibly light-weight EMR  or Electronica Medical Records system it runs on WIndows, Mac and Linux. It’s designed to manage patient information at small health centres who have limited resources and lack IT support to install and maintain a larger complex EMR. Clinicians and nursing staff can view aggregated patient data including appointments, past communications, test results and records. When a patient is due an appointment, clinics can now use PatientView to find the community health worker responsible for a specific patient and send them a reminder via SMS that a visit is needed. Its features reflect the environments where it’s deployed – stream matching algorithms help avoid errors when processing text messages from community health workers working with patients.

There are other tools in the Medic Mobile kit – Kujua, built on the Apache CouchDB which effectively works as a mobile health information hub for clinics, and more still – Professor Aydogan Ozcan at UCLA led a group that won the Vodafone Americas Foundation Wireless Innovation Project; CelloPhone, based on their LUCAS platform, uses a shadow-image process to capture images of cells and bacteria using simple mobile phones and a test process that could cost a dollar or less and  be carried out by people with a minimum of training. In tandem with Medic Mobile and partners, malaria and HIV analysis and treatment could be dramatically impacted in low resource communities.

Our team is committed to doing the kind of work that adds up to something. The kind of work you’d call home about. That you’d sacrifice a weekend for. We’re not here just to get ahead—we’re here to punch above our weight in the fight for global health equity. And we have an awful lot of fun working together.

Clever innovation is one thing, but clever innovation that’s scalable and at a low cost is key. SMS form filling, inexpensive testing and low-end devices – these are slim, elegant solutions in difficult environments.

The founders of Medic Mobile ‘enjoyed tinkering’ – a self-effacing phrase that makes you smile, but they  were people who clearly saw, and cared,  that technology could improve healthcare in the most challenging environments on our planet.

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