Posts Tagged ‘FrontlineSMS’

Why FrontlineSMS Fits

Why was FrontlineSMS the right tool for St. Gabriel’s Hospital?

I wrote a bit about the virtues of the software in July, amidst the implementation period. The program has been running for six months, and my latest trip allowed me to document the project’s impact on primary care, treatment coordination, and hospital efficiency. Further, the SMS program has saved thousands of hours of travel time for CHWs and hospital staff, and bolstered the CHWs’ status within their respective communities – which are now connected to the hospital’s resources.

As Ken Banks recently stated, whether or not a mobile tool is suitable is “all about the context of the user.” In succinct terms, here are a few reasons that Ken’s tool was a the right fit for St. Gabriel’s:

  1. It’s free.
  2. It works with simple, readily-available hardware. I used recycled phones and didn’t need to worry about the donated laptop’s specifications.
  3. It doesn’t require an internet connection. The hospital’s web access is shaky, at best.
  4. It is incredibly intuitive and easy to use. The nurse running the program had never used a computer in his life. After one hour of training, he was off and FrontlineSMS-ing.
  5. The hospital found the tool – not the other way around. After I spent time at the hospital two summers ago, the need for connectivity was clear. To meet that need, a tool was employed. It wasn’t forced on me or the hospital.
  6. Straightforward features allowed the hospital to take ownership and get creative, which encouraged user-driven functionality. One example: Auto-replies set to provide CHWs with immediate drug dosage and usage information.
  7. A ten-second demonstration can illustrate the program’s purpose. This hooked clinical staff working within various hospital programs (e.g. HIV treatment coordinator, TB officer, PMTCT director).
  8. Past text messages, and vital patient informaiton, are just two clicks away.

In examining the success of the SMS initiative over the last half-year, the appropriateness of the technology cannot be ignored.

Posted: January 15th, 2009
Categories: Technology
Tags: , , , ,
Comments: 2 Comments.

Tuberculosis, Meet FrontlineSMS

On Christmas morning, Silia stopped by the guest house to talk about the SMS program. He’s responsible for testing, drug provision, and follow-ups for TB patients. He described how he’s using FrontlineSMS and the network of cellphone-wielding CHWs. Almost all of what follows developed in my absence.


Some sputum-positive patients don’t turn up to receive their medication. It’s Silia’s job to track these patients and get them back on their drug regimens. Before the SMS program, he was visiting an average of 17 patients per week – this took him three trips on his motorbike. Each trip would take ~9 hours. That’s 27 hours per week spent tracking patients in various villages.

The SMS network has allowed Silia to share his workload with the CHWs. He now tracks an average of 20 patients per week via SMS. He simply texts CHWs nearby patients that haven’t turned up. As Silia says, the CHWs provide “immediate feedback.”

The program has been running for roughly 26 weeks. With the shift to SMS-based patient tracking, Silia had an additional 700 hours to utilize. Not surprisingly, he’s been using FrontlineSMS to supplement other areas of his work.

He now visits an average of 4 patients per week, for different reasons. Some messages from the CHWs tell of patients who are too ill to travel to the hospital. Silia will respond by bringing a new supply of drugs. Other messages relay symptoms of community members – e.g. “A man has a chronic cough, and we suspect TB.” Silia will visit the patients, and collect a sputum sample. He’ll return to the hospital to do testing and send the results, by SMS, back to the CHW.

Finally, when patients at the hospital test positive for TB, they’re told which CHWs near their home have cell phones.

Some numbers from the TB program for the last 6 months:

700 hours of follow-up time saved
450 follow-ups via SMS
(At least) $2000 in motorbike fuel saved
100 new patients enrolled in TB treatment program

Coming up: Impact on Home-Based Care, PMTCT, Public Health, and HIV/AIDS programs

Posted: December 25th, 2008
Categories: Technology, Tuberculosis Management
Tags: , , , , , ,
Comments: 4 Comments.

Back on the (Wet) Ground


I’m back in my old room at the hospital’s guest house, and it’s pouring rain. I arrived just in time for the last Home-Based Care course – 21 new, volunteer CHWs were reviewing referral procedures, patient rights, the contents of their drug kits, etc. The group, seen above, is copying acronyms into their notebooks. Here’s a snapshot of what they’re writing:

At the end of the session, the CHWs were asked to turn in a piece of paper describing the location of their home. Most of their responses were paragraphs long – some included extensive maps.

Joanna, who is running PointCare’s CD4-count outreach program, relayed an interesting conversation with one of the CHWs a week ago. She traveled to their farthest site – a good 100 mile drive – and ran into Zakeyo, who said, “You know, Josh is coming on the 19th.” I checked FrontlineSMS, and Alex hadn’t warned him. It’s exciting to know that the next time I see him, I’ll pass along a solar panel accompanied by a solar-powered light.

Tomorrow, I’m going to spend some quality time with FrontlineSMS – working through the communication over the last four months.

Please comment freely, or shoot me an e-mail, with any questions. I have just two weeks before I return to Stanford, and I’m trying to make the most of it! As always, thanks for reading.

Posted: December 20th, 2008
Categories: CHW Training, HIV/AIDS Care, Home-Based Care, Tuberculosis Management
Tags: , , , ,
Comments: 6 Comments.

In Writing – What’s Happened


Healthcare challenges

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.

Other benefits:

• 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.

Virtues of FrontlineSMS


Over the last week, there’s been a cascade of communication. A few examples, of many:

- A man missed his appointment with a TB officer. A CHW was texted, who reported the man had gone to Zambia for a funeral. The hospital will be notified upon his return.

- An HIV support group met, and decided on new member guidelines. Via SMS, the group leader asked the hospital to print copies for the lot.

- A CHW asked about ferrous sulfate dosages, so he could administer the proper amount to an anemic child.

I’m at the halfway point of my trip, and after five weeks on the ground, a discussion of the tools is in order. Ken Banks, the creator of FrontlineSMS, recently wrote an article about the emerging social power of mobiles for BBC News:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7502474.stm

Ken is building a community of implementers. Interested parties should visit two of the group’s sites: www.kiwanja.net and www.frontlinesms.com.

It is precisely due to FrontlineSMS’s smart simplicity that the project has developed organically – first and foremost, to meet the hospital’s needs as it serves its catchment area. The quick uptake of the project was fueled, in no small part, by how user-friendly FrontlineSMS is, as a central communications hub.

It also has provided solutions to some potentially tricky questions. A quick example:

Text messages cost 10 cents. Units can be sent from one phone to another via Celtel’s Me2U service, but managing the units of 100+ phones manually is near impossible. So, I had to find a way to both monitor each phone’s unit level and top up (replenish depleted reserves) automatically.

Before leaving Stanford, I engraved each phone’s faceplate with a two-digit ID number. Using FrontlineSMS’s auto-forward function, I’ve set up a system to automatically top CHWs up. When they are running low on units, CHWs can text “(ID number) Units” to FrontlineSMS. Subsequently, a message is sent to Celtel, with instructions to top up that particular CHW. System abuse is unlikely and avoidable – the volunteers know that FrontlineSMS records every message received, sandwiched by unit requests.

We’re starting to explore additional functionalities of FrontlineSMS. Each CHW is given a kit of basic medications – a portion of the questions we’re fielding involve those drugs. We’ll set up an auto-reply system so that any message containing a given drug name returns a summary – function, dosages, etc. – for that drug.