Mobile Health Around the Globe: Transformative Communications in Malawi

August 19, 2013
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United Methodist Communications (@UMCommunication) & Church of the Resurrection (@RezLive) hosted a workshop in #Malawi on power solutions (@Inveneo), FrontlineSMS (@FrontlineSMS) & Medic Mobile (@Medic). Some results were immediate.

United Methodist Communications (@UMCommunication) & Church of the Resurrection (@RezLive) hosted a workshop in #Malawi on power solutions (@Inveneo), FrontlineSMS (@FrontlineSMS) & Medic Mobile (@Medic). Some results were immediate.

Over 80 pastors and lay leaders in Malawi Provisional Annual Conference attended a workshop aimed at providing quality education around accessible and affordable communication solutions. United Methodist Communications organized the workshop with leaders from Inveneo and MedicMobile and practitioners in FrontlineSMS for church and health information. (United Methodist) Church of the Resurrection was a sponsor of the event, putting into practice their dedication to utilizing global best practices in #ICT4D.mHealth around the globe

The Reverend Larry Hollon (@larryhol) started off the conference with remarks on how the mobile phone has radically altered the landscape of communications in the developing world. He shared a personal experience from years ago, when he was doing work in Africa and it took 4 days to return an emergency call from his wife about critical surgery needed on their infant son. Today, the mobile phone can provide immediate connection when you need it the most.

mobile health

Bob Marsh, Vice President Engineering and Co-Founder of Inveneo, followed by sharing some of Inveneo’s success stories in implementing communication solutions in ultra-low resource conditions. He was joined by Richard Chisala who is a certified Inveneo partner located in Lilongwe, Malawi. One of the reasons I love working with Inveneo is their dedication to local capacity building, and Richard’s presence demonstrated how important this is. These partners are there when many of us go back to their homes – providing for the critical need of ongoing maintenance & repair. It’s easy to think that U.S.-based IT skills will easily transfer to developing countries, but I’ve learned the hard way that it just doesn’t! health communications 

Inveneo’s knowledge about how to create consistency in power supply when electricity is unreliable, their large-scale negotiation skills with mobile providers for access in rural settings, and their high-level understanding of hardware that works best in dusty, high-heat conditions are just some of the reasons they are successful in their work. Several in the audience came up to look at the alternative power solutions they had brought for demonstration. This pastor was taking notes about the flow of solar power to communication systems.

We wanted to infuse global leaders with local practitioners in this training, so United Methodist Communications invited Chenayi Kumuterera, Administrative Secretary at the United Methodist head office in Harare, Zimbabwe to teach FrontlineSMS and how she’s using it in her communications work for the church – and how she plans to use it with the hospital in Nyadire. Same day communications are uncommon in many places throughout Africa, where computers and internet are not prevalent. Through FrontlineSMS, one person with a computer (without Internet access) can send text messages to groups of people – reaching them with important and sometimes lifesaving information.

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Maeghan Ray Orton from Medic Mobile came from Nairobi, Kenya to teach about the use of SMS for health. Maeghan has a great way of creating audience interaction through drama and drawings. She wanted people to open their minds to possibilities, and shared technologies & experiments being conducted that I’ve never even heard of but which are brilliant! More on that later.   The first exercise she had the audience do included drawing with stick figures to tell a story of how text messages could save lives or improve health. Then she used several of us to depict a scene where SMS could bring needed medicines to a sick patient. One of the drawings included getting medical assistance for a child who had fallen into a latrine. If you’ve never visited one in Malawi, you might think this is funny…but unfortunately this is something that happens where traditional toilets are unavailable. Children get hurt and some have died. The drawing depicted a critical need for communications within their setting.

SMS has been in use at St. Gabriel’s Catholic hospital in Lilongwe, Malawi since 2007, so we invited a nurse – Comfort Sanudi – to come and speak about her personal experience. She spoke in the local language to the audience – expressing to them how in palliative care, the health workers travel out to see patients and can sometimes find that they are already deceased. With SMS, St. Gabriel’s is able to keep track of patients even outside of home visits to ensure they’re getting the care they need, while also preventing the loss of limited resources for those who are still living.

At the end of the conference, @Barefoot_Power solar chargers were distributed to pastors – along with some encouragement from Maeghan to use them for income generation as MedicMobile’s health workers do. These Firefly Fast Chargers were put to use immediately! One pastor offered to charge passengers’ cellphones during the bus ride home…he made about 200 kwacha in the process!

Ok, this story is long and could be much longer if I were to go into detail about how MedicMobile uses a parallel SIM card to record health data for their patients, or if I shared how deep cycle batteries can keep offices functioning when local power is down, or if I shared the many comments on the evaluation forms about how appreciated the workshop was and how much more they’d like to know. But I need to stop for now. I can say this: because of The United Methodist Church’s connectional system and continuing support, the learning doesn’t stop where the workshop ended. We are living in a new era…one where those who’ve been disconnected from the ongoing vitality of UM connection are gaining more fluid access…one where voices are being amplified so others can hear. Things will be different from before…they already are.

To read other posts in this exclusive ongoing series, please visit the Mobile Health Around the Globe main page. And if you have a Mobile Health Around the Globe story to tell, please post a comment below or email me at joan@socialmediatoday.com  Thanks!

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