African Health Data Revolution

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

A pioneering tool for gathering health data now being used in Kenya could herald a revolution in the way diseases are tracked and defeated around the world. It uses mobile phones to better connect patients with medical and health personnel, and allows data to be gathered in real-time and used to track health and improve the delivery of services, especially to remote and under-serviced areas.

In the past couple of years, Kenya has become a hotbed of mobile phone and information technology innovation. The now-famous Ushahidi crisis-mapping platform (www.ushahidi.com) is just one example. Social enterprise Data Dyne (www.datadyne.org) – with offices in Washington DC and Nairobi, Kenya – is offering its EpiSurveyor application (www.episurveyor.org) free to all to aid health data collection. It bills itself as “the first cloud-computing application for international development and global health … Think of it as like Gmail, but for data collection!”

EpiSurveyor claims to have more than 2,600 users around the world and is currently being upgraded to a second version.

“With the touch of a button I can see what’s going on across the country in real time,” Kenyan civil servant Yusuf Ibrahim told Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper. “It is amazing.”

Ibrahim works in Nairobi as the Kenyan Ministry of Health liaison to Data Dyne.

He uses maps and charts on mobile phones to track deadly disease outbreaks and vulnerable pregnancies.

The EpiSurveyor application works simply: A user logs into the website and builds and creates the sort of form they want. They then download it to a phone and start collecting data straight away.

Ibrahim gathers this data from mobile phones used by health care workers across the country.

“It used to take days, weeks or even a couple of months to find out about an outbreak of polio on the other side of the country,” he said. “Now we know almost instantly. The speed with which we can now collect information has catapulted healthcare and prevention to another level. It has completely changed healthcare and saved countless lives.”

He proudly points out Kenya’s mobile phone data collection system is “probably better than what they’ve got in the West.”

“Although we are a third world country, I’m pretty sure we’ve done this before

Western countries. While they are still collecting information in hard copy on clipboards, we are getting it instantly.”

Packed with data processing power, mobile phones are capable of an immense range of tasks and applications. Some see phones as key to a revolution in how healthcare is provided: the mobile phone becomes one-part clinic, another part mobile hospital dispensing advice and transmitting vital information back to healthcare professionals and scientists in hospitals and labs.

Despite dramatic improvements to the quality of hospitals in Africa and the number of qualified doctors, the continent’s healthcare services are still a patchwork, with rural and slum dwellers poorly served and the stresses of treating patients with contagious diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria pushing resources to the limit.

The United Nations has a number of initiatives partnering with mobile phone manufacturers, networks and software developers as part of a global campaign to reduce HIV/AIDS, malaria and deaths in childbirth.

EpiSurveyor is being used by more than 15 countries’ ministries of health and is the adopted standard for the World Health Organization (www.who.int) (WHO) for electronic health data collection.

It began as a partnership with the United Nations Foundation, The Vodafone Group Foundation, WHO and the ministries of health of Kenya and Zambia in 2006 to pilot test the software for EpiSurveyor.

At the United Nations Foundation (www.unfoundation.org), chief executive Kathy Calvin equates the impact of mobile phones on global healthcare to the discovery of the antibiotic penicillin.

“Instead of building clinics and roads to remote towns and villages so that people can access healthcare, we are bringing healthcare directly to the people via mobile phones. You get a lot more healthcare for your money,” Calvin told the Telegraph.

Resources

  • mPedigree uses cell phones to build networks to tackle and identify counterfeit drugs. Website: http://mpedigree.net/

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