family planning

Innovation in practice: Family planning via SMS

Florence Scialom, FrontlineSMS Community Support Coordinator, speaks with Esha Kalra, Georgetown University’s Institute for Reproductive Health (IRH) Programme Associate

It is difficult to bring an innovative idea to life, without first proving its potential in practice; there is a need to demonstrate on a small scale that something actually works before it can make a big difference. FrontlineSMS can be used as a tool in this process - as a free and easy to use software it can be used to test a concept before an investment is made in any costly software development.

Georgetown University’s Institute for Reproductive Health (IRH) is a global organisation dedicated to improving reproductive health worldwide, and they have been able to test the value of their latest m-health initiative using FrontlineSMS. This m-health service, called CycleTel™, empowers women by providing accessible reproductive health information via SMS. I recently spoke with Esha Kalra, India-based IRH Programme Associate, to find out more about CycleTel, and the value IRH gained through using FrontlineSMS.

As IRH explains, “CycleTel facilitates use of the Standard Days Method® (SDM), a fertility awareness-based method of family planning based on a woman’s menstrual cycle. Appropriate for women who usually have menstrual cycles between 26 and 32 days long, SDM identifies days 8 through 19 as the fertile days. To prevent pregnancy, the couple avoids unprotected sex on these days.” By making this fertility information accessible via SMS, CycleTel empowers women to have more control over their reproductive health. “We found the process straight forward and easy to explain to women who participated in testing the service,” Esha told me, explaining her experience of managing one of CycleTel’s testing phases.

IRH used FrontlineSMS to support two phases of manual testing of the CycleTel concept, in Lucknow and New Delhi, both in India. For the first phase in Lucknow, 30 women were selected to participate in the trial, and in the second phase in New Delhi the number of participants rose to 90 women. Esha was responsible for managing a number of the study’s components, including operating FrontlineSMS during the second phase in New Delhi. Esha explained to me that she very quickly picked up the variety of FrontlineSMS functionalities which could serve the needs of the project. “I do not come from a technical background, but I found messages easy to organise and send, using the group and key word functionality. In addition, the data we collected was easy to manage because we were able to regularly export it from FrontlineSMS,” Esha explained.

A notable step taken by IRH to get staff accustomed with FrontlineSMS was to create a project manual ahead of using the software. This manual drew content in part from information in the FrontlineSMS help files, but it was tailored by IRH to suit CycleTel’s programme needs. Esha described the value of this, stating that, “it really helped to have everything documented before the start of project; the manual laid out how to use FrontlineSMS to meet our project requirements and made project management much easier.” It was this forward planning on the part of IRH, combined with ease of use of FrontlineSMS that led the project to its initial success.

There have been positive proof-of-concept results from this test phase – with the majority of test users saying that they would like to continue to use the service and would recommend it to a friend. The formative research using FrontlineSMS, and especially the feedback from test users, was absolutely essential to determine the potential scope of the CycleTel service. As a result of CycleTel’s formative research results, IRH decided to pursue customised software development to automate the service. For IRH, being able to test CycleTel using FrontlineSMS proved to be a critical step in the iterative process they are now taking from concept to scale.

IRH are currently working with us to produce a full case study on their use of FrontlineSMS, so keep an eye on our blog for further details on this coming soon!