In 2008, FrontlineSMS was implemented as a central SMS hub for a rural hospital in Namitete, Malawi. Located 60 km from Lilongwe, St. Gabriel’s Hospital serves 250,000 Malawians spread over a catchment area 100 miles in radius. The vast majority of the people the hospital serves are subsistence farmers, living on under $1 a day.
• The catchment area has an HIV prevalence rate of 15% combined with widespread malnutrition, diarrhea, Multi-Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis (MDR TB), Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) and other opportunistic infections. Three medical officers are employed at St. Gabriel’s – creating a physician-to-patient ratio of 1:80,000.
• The hospital has enrolled over 600 volunteers to act as community health workers (CHWs) in their respective villages. Many of the volunteers are active members of the HIV-positive community, and were recruited through the hospital’s antiretroviral therapy (ART) program.
• When one ART monitor, Benedict Mgabe, was asked why he started volunteering, he replied, “I began when I saw my relatives and friends who were suffering from HIV and AIDS. I took it very personally; I knew I must get involved in curbing this epidemic.”
A need for a true community health network
Distance presents an often-insurmountable obstacle for patients seeking care at St. Gabriel’s. Many patients walk up to 100 miles to the hospital; those with more resources ride bicycles or oxcarts. In order to report patient adherence, ask for medical advice, or request medical care for remote clients, CHWs had to travel similar distances to the hospital’s doors.
The most motivated of the CHWs kept their own patient records, and journeyed to the hospital every few months. Their activities effectively isolated by distance, the impact of the volunteers’ work was restricted to their communities and disconnected from the centralized medical resources at the hospital – their potential role delivering healthcare stifled by disjunction.
Implementing the project
During the summer of 2008, I traveled to St. Gabriel’s with 100 recycled cell phones and a copy of FrontlineSMS – a free program developed by Ken Banks to act as a central text-message hub. My plan was to implement a text-based communications network for the hospital and the CHWs.
In groups of 10-15, CHWs were brought to the hospital, given cell phones, and trained in text messaging. The volunteers’ locations were mapped, and the phones were disseminated throughout the catchment area.
Stationed at the hospital, a laptop running FrontlineSMS coordinates the health network’s activities. The day-to-day program operations were handed over to hospital staff within two weeks. FrontlineSMS is operated by Alexander Ngalande, a nurse who heads the hospital’s Home-Based Care program.
Mr. Ngalande, on setting up and running FrontlineSMS:
“It was very quick. And, people didn’t know that this thing could work here – because, it’s our first time to have this kind of system whereby people can directly communicate with the hospital using FrontlineSMS. It’s simple and straightforward.”
Impact on patient care and hospital operations
The SMS network has enabled the following:
• Requests for remote patient care
- CHWs text the hospital staff when immediate care is needed, and the patient is subsequently visited by the Home-Based Care mobile unit. Patient location and health status are communicated, allowing the mobile team to bring needed drug supplies. According to Dickson Mtanga, a CHW in the pilot program, “When I have a problem with my patient, I just send a message to the hospital, at once. If they are helped and assisted, I feel so much better.”
• Patient tracking
- The hospital is now able to track patients in their distant communities. According to Mr. Ngalande, “Each and every department is free to use FrontlineSMS. We have ART, Home-Based Care, TB, PMTCT (Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission). For example, TB patients who are not coming for their appointments, we use FrontlineSMS to text volunteers close to the patient’s village. It’s easy to get feedback from the community.”
• Checking drug dosages
- CHWs in the field have been given basic drug supplies (e.g. Panadol, Ferrous Sulfate, eye ointments) for primary care. The CHWs now check drug dosages and uses within seconds. When FrontlineSMS receives an SMS with a drug name, it automatically responds to the health worker with that drug’s information.
• Patient updates
- CHWs regularly update the hospital staff with regards to patient status, including reporting patient deaths. These messages have created a post-discharge connection to patients’ well being.
• Coordinating Home-Based Care visits
- In addition to responding to medical emergencies in the communities, the Home-Based Care (HBC) unit also follows a schedule of home visits – sometimes checking on patients have been discharged recently. Other patients are enrolled in the hospital’s palliative care program. Before traveling to the patients’ villages, the mobile unit text messages CHWs in close proximity to the clients they plan to visit. Any response by the CHW (e.g. “Patient is not at home.”) is forwarded to the mobile team’s phone, allowing medical staff to maximize their productivity by visiting available patients.
• CHW-to-CHW communication and group mobilization
- CHWs are now communicating and collaborating. All texts are shuttled through the hospital, and FrontlineSMS commonly relays messages and requests between CHWs. This has been an important function in setting meeting dates for Village AIDS Committees and linking HIV/AIDS support groups. Hospital activities throughout the catchment area (including microfinance and Positive Living programming) are organized using the SMS network. Baxter Lupiya, a CHW in TA Kalolo, notes, “We used to travel a long distance. Now, we have easy communication with others. The program must be continued, because it is so good!”
• Integrating connectivity into HIV counseling
- HIV Counseling and Testing (HCT) at the hospital has been augmented because of the SMS network. If a client tests positive, he or she is paired with to an HIV-positive CHW with a phone – these volunteers act as models for Positive Living and provide comfortable, relatable links to the hospital.
• CHW status
- The connection to hospital services has solidified the CHWs’ role as legitimate healthcare representatives in their villages. The patients and their communities, according to the program’s participants, have noticed the phones, each one clearly marked with the hospital’s logo.
• Incentives and accountability
- The phones provided very concrete incentives for the volunteer work done by the CHWs. The SMS network created, for the first time, a way to track the CHWs’ activities, paving the way for more informed decisions regarding allocation of resources (e.g. which CHWs should receive bicycle ambulances).
A whole-hearted thanks goes out to everyone who has been reading these posts. I'd be thrilled to hear from you. In the next few days, I'll put up a post that will (attempt to) cover the various, exciting ways this project is moving forward. In the next week or so, I'll also be developing a DIY guide, based on a series of FAQs - much more on this later.