In West Africa’s Ebola Crisis, a Mobile Phone-Based Hero for Health Workers

A few months ago, I traveled to Liberia for the DHIS 2 & iHRIS Interoperability Academy, where we worked with West African developers, Ministry of Health and Social Welfare officials, and human resources managers on using health information system data to improve family planning services.  I didn’t realize at the time that those technologies were going to play a key role in Liberia’s Ebola response.Today I can’t help but think about my colleagues there and the challenges they are facing amid the outbreak. The cracks in Liberia’s health system—especially the health workforce challenges—are becoming more evident as Ebola rapidly spreads throughout the country. Every day there are new stories of distress, and the headlines suggest the outbreak is going to get worse before it gets better. 

Using mobile phones is just one way to help fight the Ebola epidemic. 

Last week I saw footage of health workers chasing an infected patient who had escaped from quarantine and was making his way through a crowded market. And I read about health workers who are protesting their working conditions, demanding protective gear and even higher compensation from the government. mHeroA more robust communications and data collection system between health workers and their supervisors is vital, particularly in light of the Ebola outbreak. Access to reliable information about Ebola diagnosis, treatment, and prevention—as well as health worker safety—will enable health workers and their communities to fight back against Ebola. Information is power. That’s why at IntraHealth we’ve been working intently over the past few weeks to find the fastest, most efficient ways to disseminate this information to health workers.One way we’re doing this is through mHero (Health Worker Electronic Response and Outreach), a free mobile phone-based communication system that allows Ministry of Health staff to quickly send key text messages to frontline health workers, even in remote areas. mHero takes advantage of several interoperable open source technologies, including:

  • IntraHealth’s iHRIS (pronounced “iris”) software, which 19 countries are now using to track human resources data on their health workforces
  • UNICEF’s SMS platform, a toolset for rapidly building text message services for data collection and group coordination
  • OpenHIE, a global initiative that works to improve health in underserved populations by supporting country-driven, large-scale information sharing architectures
  • DHIS 2, a web-based information system that helps governments and health facilities manage their operations, monitor processes, and improve communication

mHero can immediately access health workforce data—including mobile phone numbers—from iHRIS and DHIS 2, allowing Ministry of Health users to create targeted communications for over 8,000 health workers of specific types (doctors, clinic officers, or pharmacists, for example) and in specific locations (such as the epicenter of an outbreak).

Officials can use mHero to conduct real-time monitoring, complex multi-path surveys, and detailed analyses.

mHero uses OpenHIE’s architecture and interoperates with UNICEF’s text message service.Communications through mHero go far beyond traditional message blasts offered by many technology vendors. Ministry officials can use mHero to easily conduct real-time monitoring, complex multi-path surveys, and detailed analyses.And messages can be prompted locally (for example, by officials within Liberia) or remotely (for example, by UNICEF or IntraHealth).mHero gives health workers the benefit of reliable information from an official source, which can help them work more safely and effectively. And health workers can use the information to debunk false rumors about Ebola that are now rampant among the West African public.We can also take this a step beyond SMS messaging.Mobile-based interactive voice response technology offers not only greater content limits, but also addresses the literacy and language divides that exist for many health workers by conveying these key messages through spoken language.Working in collaboration with development stakeholders, the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, and our other partners in Liberia—many of whom I saw just four months ago at the academy—we’re set to launch mHero in Liberia this month.After that, the platform will be scaled to other Ebola outbreak countries and high-risk areas.Using mobile phones is just one way to help fight the Ebola epidemic. It’s going to take coordinated efforts from everyone in the global health community to fight the disease.  Yet I am optimistic. I have seen first-hand the genuine spirit, perseverance, and commitment from those working in the Liberian health system, as well as the intense dedication of other global stakeholders to work together to help.  Together, we can support our real heroes during this crisis: frontline heath workers.mHero is under rapid development with support from a consortium of partners—including UNICEF’s Global Centre for Innovations, the US Agency for International Development, IntraHealth, K4Health, and ThoughtWorksAlso read: