In Kenya, AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria are among the leading causes of death. Inefficient governmental systems have made tracking, reporting, and responding to outbreaks of these diseases virtually impossible. Manually written reports from over 5,000 health clinics around Kenya are passed – eventually – to a centralised database in Nairobi. They often arrive too late for health services to respond effectively, and the process is error prone as humans read it report and recorded it. But now a new project is using mobile phones to save lives.
A proposal to improve the situation using IT was turned down after costs were estimated at $1.9 million for the purchase of equipment and development of the required software. Instead, local programmers were hired to implement a system using Internet connected mobile phones to report disease outbreaks almost as they happened – greatly improving the situation. The system, dubbed “Integrated Disease Surveillance and Response”, was developed by four students working as interns and was up and running in much less time that traditional large-scale IT projects take – and for a fraction of the price.
Across Kenya and Africa, mobile phones are much more common than fixed land lines and they are increasingly being used for health care. Giving health advice, encouraging HIV testing, sending appointment reminders, and mobile payment schemes are all possible. The developers of this system also argue that home-grown IT systems are much less vulnerable to failure than the large, big-budget international aid projects run by many NGOs, which can suffer from financial cuts and logistical difficulties. This is particularly important in a country where mobile phones are such a popular – and relatively cheap – method of communication (26 of Kenya’s 41 million people have a mobile phone).
This Technology Review article is long but well worth the read and contains excellent examples of IT in health care, particularly of how relatively basic technologies can be used to implement effective, life-saving systems. Many social and ethical issues are also raised, including the digital divide and equality of access, people and machines, and privacy.