Medic Mobile turns cell phones into lifelines

Medic Mobile turns cell phones into lifelines

Medic Mobile works with the simplest of cell phones to help provide health care to those far away from their nearest hospital. Photo: Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps.
Medic Mobile works with the simplest of cell phones to help provide health care to those far away from their nearest hospital. Photo: Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps.

In rural communities around the world, the virtual doctor is in.

The distance between far-flung communities and their nearest hospitals can be fatal. Medic Mobile bridges the gap using a common household item: the cell phone. It’s not the same as a living, breathing doctor, but Medic Mobile comes pretty close, and it does so using a list of platforms that is strikingly similar to what you might find on a smart phone. These seemingly-sophisticated technologies can work on even the most basic of cell phones and computers, just like those found all over the developing world.

Medic Mobile’s Sim Apps, in addition to open-source platforms like FrontlineSMS, OpenMRS, Ushahidi, Google Apps, and HealthMap, allow hospital staff sitting at a computer to communicate with multiple health workers in rural areas. The health workers’ phones are basic, but Medic Mobile uses a tiny parallel SIM card that fits between any GSM phone and a carrier’s cell phone to allow these phones to run the necessary apps. The Medic Mobile website provides a more in-depth description of the many technologies it employs. In a 2009 interview with GOOD magazine, co-founder Lucky Gunasekara described Medic Mobile’s importance:

We can communicate need in real time. Say I am a community health worker in rural Malawi and one of my patients gets really sick. Before this system came along, for a lot of clinics, the patient would die, because even though I have some basic health training as a community health worker, there is nothing I can really do. They're still just as disconnected as the communities they live in. Now with our system clinicians see things in real time and they communicate back.

In addition to saving lives, the program saves time: its website says that in six months, the pilot program in Malawi “saved hospital staff 1200 hours of follow-up time and over $3,000 in motorbike fuel” and cut 900 hours of travel time for antiretroviral therapy monitors by eliminating their need to hand-deliver reports to the hospital.

Since its inception in 2009, Medic Mobile has expanded to Honduras, Haiti, Uganda, Mali, Kenya, South Africa, Cameroon, India and Bangladesh. The platform is adaptable to different situations: it was used in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake to link first responders and locals in need of help. As a result of its successes, Medic Mobile was recently named one of the Top 11 in 2011 mobile health innovators of the year by mHealth Alliance.

The proliferation of cell phones is sparking a revolution in developing-world health care. Innovators from all reaches of the globe have used the near-ubiquitous technology to increase health care affordability and access. By adapting sophisticated platforms to basic devices, they’re turning $15 cell phones into invaluable lifelines.

Editor’s note: For more information on the connection, check out A Medical Lab in the Palm of Your Hand, A Dose of Cell Phone Surveillance Helps Aid Workers Save Lives, and Paging Dr. Smartphone, to name a few.

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