Texting Innovation For Rural Medicine

What do you do when patients are so isolated and travel is so difficult and money is so tight that symptoms go untreated because information travels so slowly?

Oh, and there’s not a dime to spare.

This is the challenge faced by many rural health centers utilizing a system of community health workers who travel from clinics to reach patients in very isolated regions. They usually travel by foot or bike. They often cover such large areas that they may not return to the base clinic more than once a month.

In wealthier regions solutions would probably involve large scale databases, interactive web pages, medical equipment hooked up to doctors in centralized locations and maybe even a car or two.

Sometimes a lack of resources and a will to succeed is more than ample to create a real world changing difference.

Frontline SMS:Medic was one of the business plans presented as part of the NU Venture Challenge at the Northwestern University Farley Center for Innovation Entrepreneurship Summit last month. What an aggressive group. They have already deployed several systems, received the NU Venture Challenge ‘Best Social Entrepreneurship’ award  and recently won the N2Y4 Moble Challenge.

The solution? Text messaging.

Through open source software (FrontlineSMS), inexpensive (yet rugged) cell phones, a basic PC at the health center and a GSM modem they are able to set up a robust communication network for health workers and the community health center. Information is of higher quality and instantaneously updated and available.

Sometimes it’s the budget and infrastructure limits that actually drive the most robust and useful solution. When you know what money can’t buy you figure out ways to make due while making great – cardboard creativity in action. The young company even operates in an unusual, low cost way. While the idea was hatched in the summer of 2008 and the company launched this past February – the first face-to-face meeting of most the team didn’t occur until March.

They’ve been working as a virtual organization all along.

The innovative solution they have developed takes into account the limited infrastructure available and can be implemented for just a few thousand dollars. But even this low cost solution stretches budgets.

Next innovation – a charity that accepts your old cell phones to raise the capital needed to implement FrontlineSMS:Medic – www.hopephones.org.

As I said in my previous post – it’s nice to see young entrepreneurs face challenges.  They bring a can-do spirit that is invigorating. FrontlineSMS:Medic is operating in a niche that other organizations could not serve.

If you happen to have a spare cellphone hanging around, check out www.hopephones.org. Donating your phone could help spur a revolution in medical records technology.

Photo Credit: © 2009 Adrian Sparrow via www.istockphoto.com.

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12 Responses to Texting Innovation For Rural Medicine

  1. Bill Welter says:

    Interesting article and a great example of cardboard creativity. By the way, I love that term — it seems so darn practical and in these days of economic crisis and budget deficits I think we need more practical solutions than ever before.

  2. Making use of the power of the communications already at our disposal is clearly one of the challenges that remains to get done. I like the idea you lay out here.

    One of the things I like about the google wave presentation is the ability to take useful information threads and easily make them public. One of the emerging roles I sense on the horizon will be to effectively connect the correct answers to the current problem, regardless of the field.

    Richard Reeve’s last blog post..Creativity in the Wild

  3. kay plantes says:

    I love your story. But it also raises an issue: this opportunity was low-hanging fruit for a cell phone company had it defined its scope/purpose more broadly. Instead, cell phone companies are engaged in what I call “feel-good” Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in which their community investments have little to do with their core business.

    There is an alternative: leadership teams should define their company’s purpose/mission in a way that embraces more than commercial opportunities (e.g., the purpose of our company is to use cellular technology to solve communication issues and improve quality of life for all). In so doing, your CSR activities automatically leverage your competences AND come back to truly enhance your brand and excite employees and those you want to attract. Sometimes, you even find a commercial opportunities in the social space, which is a terrific win win.

    Contact me to learn more, as it’s a subject I am passionate about and want to help as many people as I can do this. Drucker argued before he died that all the interesting work will be in the social sector. For-profit companies had better hurry up!

    kay plantes’s last blog post..Growth Strategy During a Recession

  4. Hi Bill, Thanks, I like the term as well and am thinking through ways to play with it a bit more.

  5. I’m still getting my head around Google’s Wave idea. Pulling relevant information from a wide variety of sources and getting it to folks who can use it is still a huge opportunity and even if it’s a small step it could really make a difference.

  6. Hi Kay, I believe that kind of thinking can be very freeing creatively for a corporation. With social as well as profit objectives/missions you end up with alternative ways to judge a programs suitability to move forward. Driving yourself to create a meaningful product for a space that appears unprofitable at first can lead to advances throughout a product line. I like this thinking.

  7. J.D. Meier says:

    I like it when technology is improving the quality of lives.

    J.D. Meier’s last blog post..Influencer – The Power to Change Anything

  8. Andrew says:

    By the sounds of it, this sounds like a wonderful example of the practice of leveraging existing technology to produce an innovative social solution, and indeed, it sound as though Frontline SMS:Medic deserve full credit for their innovating approach.
    [rq=2307,0,blog][/rq]America and climate change – messy action beats no action

  9. name change says:

    The leveraging existing technology is the only way to develop the communication medium between the rural & urban areas!

  10. mesm says:

    what a wonderful use of technology and sms, I think I’ll dig out all my old cells in the cupboard and get them sent off

  11. The technology now a days has been improving quite well. But it is sometimes hard to implement and execute things like this in poor countries because of lack of knowledge and budget allocation for project like this to work.
    .-= roville@newlifecertified´s last blog ..NewLife Surgeon Concludes Operation Smile Mission Trip =-.

  12. I totally agree with you in rural area health facilities are very limited and the health centers also far away from the reach of many peoples. In those area’s it more than a challenge to save human life.They don’t have sufficient funds for the treatment.

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