Keeping life-saving medicine in stock with SMS technology

Modern medicine can cure malaria in almost all cases.

Still, 2,200 people die from malaria every day; young children in sub-Saharan Africa account for most of the disease's victims.

Most of the deaths can be blamed on a lack of access to effective antimalarial drugs.

Many health facilities in the developing world particularly those in remote rural communities in poor countries have trouble maintaining adequate supplies of effective antimalarials.

Novartis International saw an opportunity to help by leveraging technology to improve the availability of these life-saving drugs. The pharmaceutical giant embarked on a project that focused on eliminating stockouts and increasing access to malaria medicines for hundreds of millions of people in rural areas. The result of its efforts, SMS for Life, has helped reduce the number of deaths from this disease throughout Tanzania.

The SMS for Life system consists of an SMS management tool and a Web-based reporting tool. The SMS application stores a single registered mobile telephone number for one healthcare worker at each health facility. Once a week, the system automatically sends an SMS message to each of those telephone numbers and asks for a report of the current stock of antimalarial drugs at the facility. Each healthcare worker sends a message back to report inventory levels, using a short code number so that the message is sent free of charge.

A standard message format is used to capture stock quantities, with formatting errors handled through follow-up automated SMS messages to a facility. Using the Web-based reporting tool, the data captured from the SMS stock-count messages are collected and stored centrally on a secure website that requires a unique user ID and password for access.

The website provides current and historical data on stock levels of antimalarial medicines and malaria rapid diagnostic tests at the health facility and district levels. It also incorporates Google mapping of district health facilities, with stock level overlays and stockout alerts, SMS messaging statistics and usage statistics. Statistical tools can be used to provide early warnings of malaria outbreaks.

SMS for Life's effectiveness has been impressive. It has given healthcare workers visibility into antimalarial stock levels and has led to more efficient stock management.

The program, which was piloted in 2010, is being rolled out across Tanzania and is moving to other African countries, where it is expected to save hundreds of lives every day.

Novartis donated the technologies and resources for the design and development of the SMS for Life solution and the pilot implementation. The service is now offered on a commercial basis by Vodafone. Pricing is set to be commercially sustainable but affordable, even for developing countries.

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