Better health care only a telephone click away

Reading time 4 min.

The small, dusty village of Mayange lies 20 kilometres from Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. Its health centre has fewer than 40 beds but serves an estimated 35,000 people. In most ways, the Mayange centre is like thousands of other health facilities across the continent which struggle to meet patients’ needs with very few resources and staff.

By Mary Kimani

But, thanks to an innovative partnership involving the government, non-governmental organizations and private companies, the Mayange centre now uses mobile telephones to provide better treatment. With software developed by Ericsson and phones donated by the Rwandan subsidiary of Mobile Telephone Networks (MTN), a South African firm, health workers can call up the medical records of pregnant women from an online database and then, by cell phone, tell care-givers what to do during an emergency. Each phone now has in its memory a maternal and child-care training manual, with images and audio directions that can be sent to mothers and families.

The project is only a few months old but it is “going to have a very big impact,” Dr. Joseph Ryarasa told Africa Renewal magazine. “To reduce maternal and child mortality, you need to educate mothers and health workers. Now we can send them educational messages on their phones or inform them about inoculations.”

With funding from the Rwandan government and support from the Earth Institute of Columbia University in New York, US, the Mayange health centre has a solar charger, provided by Ericsson, to power 30 phones. It also has a computer database, accessible by mobile phone, with medical records of families in the village which makes it easy for health workers to monitor health patterns.

Easy to adapt

Ericsson Chief Executive Officer Carl-Henric Svanberg says that doing the project in other places in Africa would be easy and inexpensive. “Different places will want to apply the software to different things — health care, agriculture or to check the prices in the fish market,” he told Africa Renewal. “Customizing the software is not rocket science. African software engineers can do it easily.” As a start, the Earth Institute and Ericsson intend to extend the project to 10 other villages in Africa.

Such information and communications technologies (ICTs) are an important way for Africa to deal with some of its biggest social challenges, says Joanna Rubenstein, a director at the Earth Institute. “Initially we thought we had to wait until we got electricity to such places to be able to bring in such technology but with solar panels it’s possible immediately.” That breakthrough has opened the way for “applications that we in developed countries don’t normally use mobile phones for.”

Monitoring AIDS treatments

The Mayange clinic is not alone in using mobile networks to improve health care. Across Rwanda, 143 public and private health centres that offer anti-retroviral medicines (ARVs) to people with HIV/AIDS now use Tracnet, a system that employs mobile phones to collect information on patients’ infections. It helps the national drug centre keep track of which medicines are available in each health centre and when they need to restock, making shortages of ARVs less common.

“It is a simple technology which has changed the way we deal with HIV in Rwanda,” says Dr. Tom Mushi, at Kigali’s Polyclinic of Hope. Previously, small clinics would often run out of medicines and other supplies. The time it then took to get in new supplies disrupted the centres’ ability to fill prescriptions. “Now if the national drug supply can’t send the drugs quickly enough to a centre, they can talk to a health centre nearby that has a high stock and have the need filled,” he told Africa Renewal.

Tracnet is a joint project of Voxiva, a private company, and the Rwandan Ministry of Health, and is partially funded by the World Bank. Similar partnerships among governments, private companies and UN agencies are working in Uganda and Mozambique. In Burkina Faso and Burundi, rural communities are being trained to care for HIV/AIDS patients via mobile technologies.

Rwanda’s Minister of State, Energy and Communications Albert Butare urges donors to support technological solutions that can help solve social problems. “When we first started using ICTs, we actually had problems with our development partners,” he explains. “They told us, ‘You are too ambitious. Do you really need computers and the Internet or sufficient drinking water, good shelter and food?’ We said, ‘[They are] not exclusive. We need all of them’.”

Ms. Mary Kimani is a writer for United Nations Africa Renewal magazine. Please e-mail your comments to Africa Renewal

Africa Renewal  Africa Renewal magazine, published by the United Nations, examines Africa's development, achievements and challenges. It provides expert analysis and on-the-spot reporting to show how policies affect Africa's people.
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