How mHealth is Supporting Uganda's Health Clinics

Elegent and effective mHealth solutions can oftentimes be the most simple. One example is the UNICEF supported mTrac. TIME reports on the tools is deployment in Uganda where “131 hospitals serve nearly 36 million people, and children are dying of treatable diseases, especially malaria, which accounts for up to 40% of medical visits and almost a quarter of deaths among kids under 5.”

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mTrac allows for the tracking of medical supplies across Uganda’s health clinics. The country is not short on medicine overall, but can run into problems at individual clinics. A mobile-based solution helps to bridge the gap by ensuring that each of the clinics have the proper supplies.

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One of the tripartite system’s key strengths is that for an innovation so digital, it’s actually low tech. This means the ongoing cost of mTrac to the Ugandan Ministry of Health appears to be negligible. The U.K.’s Department for International Development provided the initial capital, including money for building the software, training workers and setting up the Internet, but the workers use their own phones. UNICEF estimates the Health Ministry’s outlay to be about $14 per district per month.

If the costs are slight, the value isn’t. In January, the health team in the Kotido district noticed an uptick in reported cases of pneumonia. Upon investigation, it found that a village health team worker was misdiagnosing the disease and that patients were being treated with unnecessary and costly antibiotics. The mistake was spotted and fixed within weeks. (The worker was retrained.) The community hotline was also engaged after the Ebola outbreak in Kibaale in July killed 17 people, mostly disproving reports of further cases and limiting public hysteria.

The mTrac program is under way in clinics in 57 of Uganda’s 113 districts; the other 56 should be added this year. Initially, about 8,000 village health team workers are being trained. Some texters, says Blaschke, can send in their reports in five minutes. Others have never used cell phones for anything except pressing the green button to make a call.

The further uses to which this method of data collection and bookkeeping can be put are myriad; Blaschke hopes to track and treat a multitude of problems. “In the past, in order for UNICEF to know, for example, how many water boreholes were working, we’d have to spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars sending a team out for months to do surveys,” he says. “We could now do that in 24 hours for a hundredth of the price — and involve community members in the process and better represent their needs.”

mTrac is certainly not a cure-all; having the details of a problem at your fingertips is by no means the same as having a solution. The Ministry of Health has 1,000 reports coming in weekly and sometimes struggles to respond. And the ability to reach public officials — who have gone on TV and radio to address the concerns raised on U-report — has changed expectations among people who formerly felt they had no voice. “In a way,” says Blaschke, “it’s remaking the social contract between government and its citizens.”

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