For those of us who don’t speak Chichewa, Chipatala cha pa Foni means health centre by phone. In 2011, a so named health centre was launched by the non-profit organisation “VillageReach”, in a bid to connect expectant mothers in Malawi with health workers in order to receive the appropriate careened health services they require.
In an email interview with a Program Manager at VillageResearch, Erin Larsen-Cooper stated that a key aspect of the program “uses the hosted service TextIt to send and receive text messages to and from pregnant women and community health workers”. Erin explained that ANC connect is not a mobile application: “By design users don’t need an app on their phone to access the service; the service can be accessed from any phone, even the most basic ones, by registering via SMS”.
All that users are required to do in order to register is text an approved keyword to an SMS shortcode. ANC Connect then automatically generates appropriate prompts to either register the client or set up an appointment for them. Once integrated in the system, registered users have the ability to receive SMS reminders and tips about reproductive, maternal and newborn wellbeing and health, as well as information on maternal care and child issues and even assistance with referrals.
If a client were to miss an ANC appointment, her community health worker would be notified through automated SMS alerts. This enables VillageReach to help pregnant women receive the necessary prenatal care visits and provide access to information on birth planning, including reminders to use maternal health facilities for the delivery and also follow-up services.
Similarly, the service allows community health workers to keep track of relevant information about their patients, for instance the date of their most recent appointment, whether the birth plan has been completed, and when and where they have delivered their babies.
In December 2014, the pilot for ANC Connect started a partnership with the Clinton Health Access Initiative in rural areas of the Balaka and Ntcheu districts of Malawi. In these areas, VillageReach estimated that approximately 45% of households had access to a mobile phone. In these cases, ANC Connect rely on community health workers to follow-up with women who have missed appointments and enables women who can’t access a mobile phone to register through a community health worker, who will receive alerts of missed appointments on their behalf. According to Larsen-Cooper, 500 pregnant women enrolled in the pilot program and she claimed that participants experienced improved relations with health workers in their community as a result of using the service. Furthermore, health workers in the program were able to pay visits to clients more frequently and therefore follow up with expectant mothers who might not get that kind of care if they were not enrolled in the program.
Modern businesses can learn from with the ingenuity displayed by VillageReach and ANC Connect. The program perfectly displays the utility of sms messaging for community projects and charity work, especially in areas where access to transport is poor and communication is more difficult. Many modern businesses could most likely be using SMS messaging to improve their offering, allowing automated text messages to enhance efficiency, communication, and productivity in a multitude of ways.