mTrac: Using a phone to deliver medicine

Publication Date: 
October 31, 2012
Doctor treating patients at a rural health facility in Uganda.

What does it take to integrate delivery of clinical information, drugs and other health services into a phone? UNICEF’s Yusef Atef discovered that, “it’s simple; all you need is a connected mobile phone.”

With one of the fastest growing mobile phone markets in sub Saharan Africa, the Ministry of Health is now tapping into Uganda’s growing phone population to leverage healthcare delivery through an innovative SMS based system, commonly referred to as mTrac. This initiative strengthens the existing Health Management Information System (HMIS) system, essentially serving as “digital paper” to speed up the flow of critical data from Health Facilities to District Health Teams.

For the health sector, mTrac offers instant remedies to old problems – most notably drug shortages in rural health facilities. It has also offered a platform to develop more innovative ideas that can be used to address the numerous challenges to improving healthcare delivery in the country.

A recent assessment towards achieving MDGs in Africa by 2015, noted that several African countries are not on track to meet the UN's Millennium Development Goals related to health. This means that the need for innovation has never been greater.

And mTrac could not have come at a better time. This SMS based application is providing health workers an information super highway. Health facilities are now able to transmit weekly surveillance reports directly to both the Ministry and the District Health Teams (DHTs) via SMS. Upon receipt, the DHTs are able to respond in real time by relocating ACT drugs and simple malaria rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) to where they are needed most - areas of shortage.

“Patients are often given antimalarial drugs without diagnosis in health center II’s. This is because these facilities lack laboratories and are ill equipped. This exposes patients to wrong treatment and is a complete waste of drugs. In fact it can even promote drug resistance in the long term,” adds Dr. Israel Nyanzi, a Clinical Officer at Kanoni Health Center III in Gombe District.

He notes that mTrac has made it possible for them to receive consignments of drugs, and other medical equipment in time, “something which was totally unheard of in the past.” Efficiency in drug delivery has consequently reduced the number of patients flocking the facility for treatment. “We are able to treat and discharge up to twenty patients daily as opposed to back then, when our halls and wards would be filled with patients – crying out for help,” notes Israel.

With mTrac, communities can also demand for better health care, at ZERO cost. The free SMS based service means that you do not have to sit back and wait on the Ministry to respond to emerging health problems. Instead, you can be part of the solution. Simply text to 8200 and tell the officials at the National level what is happening locally.

Dr. Davis Musinguzi of UNICEF notes that phone users in the community can now report on several health related issues, be it poor service at the hospital or outbreaks in malaria, cholera, dysentery to shortages in drugs at the health facilities.

East Africa has led the way in mobile innovations globally, modernizing the way information is spread, and finding a wide range of functions for a phone even in crucial sectors such as agriculture, banking and cash transfers.

There is renewed hope that mobile communications and particularly mTrac will impact healthcare across Uganda – both in the rural and urban areas.

Officials from the Ministry of Health and partner organizations supporting mTrac, including the UK Aid, UNICEF and WHO have embarked on nationwide training and recruitment of village health teams (VHTs) into mTrac. They are optimistic that increased information flow will translate into improvement in health service delivery.

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