Text messaging promises cheap, effective delivery of health information--in Africa

If you want to see the true potential of mobile healthcare, look east. Not as far as high-tech countries like Japan or South Korea, and further south than post-industrial Europe. Yes, once again, I'm talking about Africa.

Last week, a regional health minister in South Africa touted mobile technology as a means of "first-class, real-time" service delivery in numerous industries, including healthcare.

Meanwhile, the Grameen Foundation, supported by Grameen Bank, the "microlender" that helped founder Muhammad Yunus capture the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, unveiled the first fruits of a project called AppLab. The foundation, which has its technology center in Seattle, worked with Google to launch a suite of mobile applications aimed at farmers, starting in Uganda. The group of five apps, based on Google SMS Search technology, includes one for sexual and reproductive health information and another to help users find local clinics and other health services. According to the Seattle Times, users simply send a text message with their query and receive an automated response from the Google database.

The program kicked off in Uganda, but the Internet search giant apparently has plans to spread the services across East Africa.

Coincidentally, the United Nations is in the midst of a 10-day effort in Uganda to send health-related text messages to 10,000 people in the city of Jinja. Medical News Today reports that the program, called "Texting4Health," invites those contacted to take a short health quiz via SMS, with no messaging charges for the user, as part of a public health information campaign.

Meanwhile, FrontlineSMS, a British project that provides free, open-source software for sending, receiving and routing text messages, wrapped up a six-month pilot test of its FrontlineSMSMedic technology in Malawi that provided emergency care to 150 patients, and saved health workers somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 hours in travel time, IntoMobile reports.

Not bad for a bunch of "low-resource" societies, no? Would it be too much to ask for the richest country in the world to embrace such a simple method of promoting and monitoring health? - Neil