FrontlineSMS takes on rural healthcare in Malawi

Today sees the official launch of the new version of FrontlineSMS. To celebrate, invited Josh Nesbit - a Senior in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University - to talk about its use in east Africa where he's spending the best part of this summer introducing the system into a rural hospital in Malawi. You can read Josh's Blog here "St. Gabriel’s Hospital is no stranger to assaults on well-being spread by disease and illness. Located in Namitete, Malawi, St. Gabriel’s serves 250,000 rural Malawians spread throughout a catchment area one hundred miles in radius. With a national HIV prevalence rate of 15-20%, children orphaned by AIDS will represent as much as one tenth of the country’s population by 2010. With tuberculosis (TB), malaria, malnutrition and pneumonia ravaging immuno-compromised populations, the health system - including St. Gabriel’s Hospital - faces a disquieting burden. Malawi’s health challenges are compounded by its devastatingly low GDP per capita, by some measures the lowest in the world.

With just two doctors and a handful of clinical officers, St. Gabriel’s Hospital is strikingly understaffed. This perennial state of affairs explains the shift of primary healthcare in other, similar settings, to Community Health Workers (CHWs), trained for specified tasks. Through the hospital’s antiretroviral (ARV) treatment program - drug therapy for HIV/AIDS - over 600 volunteers have been recruited. These volunteers are spread throughout villages in the Hospital's catchment area. Some CHWs are HIV and TB drug adherence monitors, while others accompany patients during long journeys (up to a hundred miles, often by foot) to the hospital.

A few of the more inspired volunteers record their activities in notebooks, and travel to the hospital to have their good work acknowledged. The vast majority, however, remain disconnected from hospital activities, interacting with hospital staff only to pick up their drugs. It’s not that they don’t want to play a legitimate role in a community health system - there is no communication to foster such a role.

Enter FrontlineSMS. The program, developed by Ken Banks and his team at, is the cornerstone of a new, text-based communications initiative at St. Gabriel’s Hospital. Funded by the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University and the Donald A. Strauss Foundation, I'm currently knee-deep in a pilot program.

FrontlineSMS is being used to connect the hospital with its CHWs, expanding the role of the volunteers. Drug adherence monitors are able to message the hospital, reporting how local patients are doing on their TB or HIV drug regimens. Home-Based Care volunteers are sent texts with names of patients that need to be traced, and their condition is reported. "People Living with HIV and AIDS" (PLWHA) Support Group leaders can use FrontlineSMS to communicate meeting times. Volunteers can be messaged before the hospital’s mobile testing and immunization teams arrive in their village, so they can mobilize the community. Essentially, FrontlineSMS has adopted the new role of coordinating a far-reaching community health network.

The hospital sees intense promise in the formidable duo of FrontlineSMS and the cell-phone-yielding health worker. The usefulness of a well-managed communications network is undeniable, particularly when the information is so vital. In the first hours of the pilot program, a deceased patient’s extra ARVs were secured, the Home-Based Care unit was alerted of ailing cancer patients, and a death was reported (saving the hospital a day-long motorbike trip to administer additional morphine).

Rural healthcare has found, in FrontlineSMS, a powerful protagonist".