LiIongwe, Malawi. In rural Malawi where an estimated 60% of women, children and senior citizens have to walk long distances to access healthcare, it is not surprising to see primary healthcare centres (PHCs) and hospitals overcrowded and understaffed.
Fed-up of this sad state of affairs, the health ministry and NGOs such as Village Reach in this impoverished Southern African nation of 15 million people have since decided to look at technology to help alleviate the people’s suffering.
Both the state and NGOs have launched an m-health programme whereby cellphones are being used to solve problems such as lack of access and delays in services.
For people like Doreen Namasala, who has been a community health worker for over a decade in rural Malawi, mobile technology is a good omen because it has come at the right time to rescue her country’s ‘ailing’ healthcare system.
It has been a year since Namasala began working at the chipatala cha pa foni (health centre by phone in local language Chichewa), answering about 15 to 18 calls per day. Chipatala cha pa foni aims to improve maternal, newborn and child health services and increase community confidence in the health system.
The pilot project currently includes:
• A toll-free case management hotline
• An automated, personalised service that offers tips and reminders to pregnant women, and caregivers of children under five.
• A health centre booking and appointment centre
• A Community outreach and education on maternal, newborn and child health issues.
The programme has been successful so far, receiving between 400 and 600 calls per month, with over 75% of callers interested in receiving advice and, or registering for tips and reminders. However, like in any African project of such magnitude, the programme has being hindered by various challenges.
Phone ownership is low in rural areas, less than 25%, a factor that forces patients to rely on community health workers’ phones to access the hotline and receive tips and messages. Telecom services and “talk time,” or cellphone minutes, are also expensive for Malawians, which deters patients from using the service.
Nevertheless, despite these setbacks, integrating mobile technology into Malawi’s health system appears to be largely perceived as a success, experts said.
After all, even an expensive lifeline is one that many Malawians did not have before.