February 23, 2009

Mobile + open source = medical diagnoses on the fly

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FrontlineSMS:MedickiwanjaToday sees the launch of an exciting new initiative – FrontlineSMS:Medic – by a growing team of students mobilising around the practical application of mobile technology in global healthcare delivery.

FrontlineSMS:Medic combines Josh Nesbit’s pioneering work on “Mobiles in Malawi” with a mobile version of OpenMRS — an open source medical records system — and an exciting new remote diagnosis tool. In this guest blog post, Josh Nesbit and Lucky Gunasekara talk about the origins of the project, and their plans in the coming months.

Josh: I should be heading off to class, right about now. I’ll go, but not without telling a story, first. A convergence of ideas and people marks the launch of FrontlineSMS:Medic and the team’s embarkation on a quest to do mHealth the right way.

Many of you are familiar with the role FrontlineSMS, a donated laptop, and a bag of recycled cell phones have played in connecting community health workers (CHWs) in Malawi to a rural hospital and its resources. Text messaging is now an integral component of the hospital’s infrastructure. FrontlineSMS has proven intuitively easy to use with strong user buy-in. The program is horizontally scalable, and incredibly cheap to run, matched with indisputable savings in time and costs. Enter Lucky.

President Clinton introduces Lucky

Lucky: I am the bewildered South Asian guy in the photo. Back in 2008, I was sitting in an office in Tokyo reading about cellphone penetration in developing countries, wondering if mobiles couldn’t also be used for boosting healthcare delivery in resource poor settings. When I wasn’t wearing a suit and riding to work in a packed Tokyo subway car, I was wearing a t-shirt and khakis and working in clinics in Sri Lanka – accepting an offer to attend  Stanford Med, this year. I worked out that SMS could be used in tandem with an open source electronic medical records system called OpenMRS, allowing for continuity in patient care from the community health workers to the clinic.  Meanwhile, Josh was sweating it out in Malawi, actually learning this the hard way. Just to prove that good ideas are obvious, Isaac Holeman and Daniel Bachhuber, two students at Lewis & Clark, had the same realization and began working on a project called MobilizeMRS to get this underway.

Josh: Long story short, we’re all working together now. Lucky is pictured on stage with Bill Clinton, as his CGI U commitment is announced on the group’s behalf.

Lucky: The commitment is, briefly:

To build on kiwanja’s CGI commitment of an Ambassadors Program within FrontlineSMS, by developing a new version of FrontlineSMS – FrontlineSMS:Medic – for use in clinics in developing countries. That Medic will have end to end of continuity of electronic medical records by fusing FrontlineSMS with OpenMRS in a modular click-to-add format. I will be taking a year off from medical school (a decision infinitely popular with my folks) to work on this system and develop new partners on the ground with Josh, and do research on a new breakthrough medical diagnostic system at UCLA, that we feel will be the “Killer App” of FrontlineSMS:Medic. More on that to come. We’re also going to be fully open source with wiki user manuals and off-the-shelf healthcare packages for download, so setting up a DOTS-TB program doesn’t have to be any harder than buying a song on iTunes… OK, maybe a little bit harder… but not by much.

Josh: We’re planning to pull this off within a year, operating in more than 25 pilot study and partner clinics by the summer of 2010. The system will be free and so will the hardware. Check http://medic.frontlinesms.com regularly to learn more and get involved.

This post originally appeared at Kiwanja.net.Ken Banks is founder of kiwanja.net, a site that helps nonprofits use mobile technology to serve their communities’ information needs. See his profile page, visit his blog, contact Ken or leave a comment. Follow Ken on Twitter at @kiwanja.

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