Tech Company Offers Mobile Tools for African Health Advocates

Canadians hold key roles at Medic Mobile, which uses cell phones to support community health workers improve basic health outcomes
by Tania Haas
A version of this article was published by Contributoria in August 2014

credit: skoll foundation

credit: skoll foundation

Toronto – When African leaders gathered this week in Washington D.C. for the first U.S.-Africa Leaders summit, First Lady Michelle Obama and former First Lady Laura Bush hosted an exclusive forum focusing on women and girls’ health.  Medic Mobile, a small non-profit technology company with a strong Canadian contingent, was one of only nine organizations invited to present.

While few sub-Saharan African communities have adequate medical resources, most have a strong mobile signal (96 per cent of the world is connected by a cell phone). Medic jumped on this access to use basic mobile phones to improve health in the world’s most under-served communities.  Medic creates web and mobile tools, mainly for community health workers and volunteers.

This spring, Silicon Valley tech leaders and global social entrepreneurs applauded Medic’s simple and effective model and backed it with over $1 million to further its reach.

Canadians make up a large percentage of the San Francisco-based company’s global team with a product manager in Toronto, a director of partnerships in Atlanta and a regional director in Nairobi.

“We view ourselves as global citizens who are responsible for everyone,” said Jacqueline Edwards, Nova Scotia native and the Atlanta-based director of partnerships. “I think it’s reflective of the fact that health equity is important in Canada and we all view it as a human right.”

In May, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Canada’s commitment of $3.5 billion to improve the health of mothers and children in low-income countries over a five-year period starting next year. This is addition to the $2.85 billion Canada has already provided for 2010 to 2015 to improve nutrition, reduce disease burdens and improve health systems.

If First Ladies Obama and Bush are listening to what Medic has to say, maybe those at the Muskoka Initiative should too?

Medic’s CEO said the key to success is to engage with the community from the very start.

“We only design new tools when they’re needed, and we design for our users. We believe that the only way to unlock sustained impact is to put users at the centre of the whole process,” said Josh Nesbit, CEO, Medic Mobile.

Medic’s users are an army of mainly local volunteers—community health workers, caregivers, patients and families – who can monitor symptoms and medications; stay in touch with clinicians; send emergency alerts; and convey critical data to decision makers. Medic also partners with clinics, doctors, nurses, ministries of health and non-governmental organizations.

The Medic approach has created products that focus on malaria treatment adherence; improving immunization rates; antenatal and postnatal care; infectious disease surveillance; reducing the stigma against mental health; and monitoring stocks of essential medicines.

In Liberia, Medic works with Last Mile Health to deliver community-based newborn and child health services.

In Kenya, Medic partnered with Kilifi Kids and the Ministry of Health to train 450 community health workers to register women as soon as they become pregnant to ensure regular antenatal care visits.

Last year in Malawi, 75 community health workers used mobile phones to relay symptoms of rural patients, doubling the number of people found to have symptoms of tuberculosis and who were referred for treatment. The 1,300 text messages saved time-strapped hospital staff over 2,000 hours in follow-up time and $3,000 (USD) in fuel.

Medic’s commitment to long-term, sustainable solutions attracted the attention of foundations and corporate grants. Last March, Medic won the coveted the $1.25 million Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, distributed by the foundation started by Jeff Skoll, a Canadian and former first president of eBay.

“These are not lifetime achievement awards,” said Sally Osberg, president and CEO, Skoll Foundation. “These are bets on the people who will create better futures for millions.”

Medic’s impact also attracted the attention of Sal Khan from the Khan Academy and Premal Shah of Kiva Microfunds, supporters of  Fast Forward, the accelerator for non-profits using software to improve the world. In May, Medic won a place in the three-month summer program, which includes mentorship, training, networking and a $25,000 (USD) grant.

Nesbit started Medic from his Stanford dorm room after a summer spent working in a rural hospital in Malawi in 2007. The then pre-med Nesbit observed patients walk 160 kilometers to see the hospital’s single doctor and remote health workers walk over 50 kilometers to deliver reports by hand. He also had stronger cell phone reception there than back home in California. Josh returned to school and shifted focus from medicine to mobile health.

Since its inception in 2007, Medic has crossed 20 countries. Its tools support 8,000 front-line health workers and serve approximately five million people.

“These remote workers are the touch point for a billion people who will never see a doctor,” said Edwards.

Nesbit said for every community health worker supported, at least 100 families are connected with, talked to, or checked up on. These workers are trusted members of the community who, according to like-minded organizations like Partners In Health and 1 Million Health Workers, are key players to ending Africa’s health inequity.

“I can’t imagine a just world where everyone is covered by cell phone coverage and not vaccines,” said Nesbit.