UnNiched: Using Mobile Tech for Health Communications

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Nov 01, 2011

Making health initiatives more accessible through technology can help patients and doctors keep themselves better informed about health and wellness. On October 25th, The Path of the Blue Eye hosted unNiched: Scratch, Sniff and Learn, a short conference focusing on innovation in the health marketing and communications world. Fard Johnmar, one of the founders of the Path of the Blue Eye project, introduced all the speakers and explained that the event is about " really getting people together from different disciplines, so that they can learn from each other and improve health and wellness."

Seven organizations gave short presentations on their health and technology initiatives before the group broke out into smaller discussions and demonstrations. Three of the projects presented at unNiched with a mobile focus: MoTeCh, a program using mobile phones to connect community health workers and beneficiaries in Uganda; Ubiqi, a mobile tracking tool for patients with chronic disease; and InStrat, a personalized SMS health alert system. While introducing the mobile technology section of unNiched Johnmar said, "So mobile – you'll see in today's presentations and by interacting with our innovators – really means empowerment, education and finally, most important for me, behavior change."  Watch a short video featuring excerpts from the mobile UnNiched presentations below to see how the organizations are using mobile in their work, and read on for a description of each project.


MobileActive.org has covered MoTeCh in the past, examining the project's use of mobile technology for antenatal and neonatal health in rural Ghana.  MoTech is a partnership of the Ghana Health Service, the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, and the Grameen Foundation, and focuses both on streamlining community health workers' data collection methods and providing information about prenatal and early childhood health to beneficiaries, with a focus on a continuum of care through pregnancy and early childhood. During her unNiched presentation, MoTeCh's Allison Stone spoke about the organization's choice to use mobile technology saying that in a baseline survey of the area, they found that among women in the region 23% had a personal phone, 34% had a spouse with a phone, 15% had access to a phone within their household, 12% had access within their community, and 16% did not have mobile access. Even with 16% of women without access, mobile technology was the best way to cheaply and regularly stay in contact with beneficiaries in rural areas.

Built on the OpenMRS system, MoTeCh works on basic JAVA phones and allows community health workers to enter data about patients into the phone and then upload that information to a central database. Patients who sign up for health alerts (available in both SMS and voice messages, although 99% of clients chose voice) receive regular health reminders and information. The program aims to make keeping track of patients' cases easier for community health workers, and to improve community knowledge about antenatal and early childhood health in rural Ghana.


Ubiqi is a health tracking tool that uses both mobile and web technologies. Although Ubiqi plans to eventually offer the tool for many chronic diseases, they are piloting the project as a tool for migraine sufferers as they felt there was a patient need and physician need for accurate data on migraine triggers and treatments. Users can track triggers and behaviors in order to detect trends in what causes their migraines and what helps relieve migraine pain. Since its November 2010 launch, the app has been download 8000 times and has 3000 active users. The tool is available for free as both a smartphone and feature phone app; users log triggers, symptoms, and medication into the tool and then the data is turned into spreadsheets.

Jacqueline Thong, who presented Ubiqi at UnNiched, said that the group is currently working on keeping users engaged, as the tool is most effective if users file reports in to it regularly. She said that a surprisingly outcome of the pilot has been how interesting in users are in other migraine sufferers' data; knowing how others are treating migraines and what their triggers are is a popular request. She also said that the demographic breakdown of the users was interesting saying, "Initially we saw a skew towards male, even though migraine sufferers are more likely to be female. At the beginning, the very early adopters were more often the not, men." However after a year the demographics have leveled out and the users are majority female. The group also found a surprising number of international users, especially from India (7% of users are from India, even though the app was only promoted in North America). In surveys of the apps most frequent users, Ubiqi found that the users with the highest levels of engagement were using the app to try to cut down on their triggers to that they could lessen their dependence on medication. For people suffering from chronic diseases like migraines, using a simple tracking and data collection tool can help identify patterns and trends, making it easier for patients to communicate triggers with doctors.

InStrat and Anadach Group

The final presentation focusing on mobile technology for health was a joint initiative from InStrat Global Health Solutions and Anadach Group. The project, which is running in Nigeria, allows participants to track health conditions through SMS and receive personalized health reports through SMS.

Patients set up profiles and sign up for what they want to track and receive alerts for – high blood pressure, weight, or blood sugar levels are currently tracked. Okey Okuza of InStrat explains, "So at the time you set up to get your alert [...] you get an alert that says 'please remember to take your readings' and then you respond to that alert with your reading with a simple code. Once you enter the reading in your system, you get a confirmation that your reading has been received and processed." If your reading is above normal, you get an instant alert that lets you know you're out of the target range, and whoever else you set to receive your alerts (such as a physician or a family member) also receives an alert that you are out of your target health area. In addition to health tracking and alerts, users also receive tips on managing either blood pressure, weight, or blood sugar based on what they signed up for.

Doctors and participants can review the collected information on an online portal so that they can see if there are any changes or spikes over time, and users can participate with either basic phones through SMS or on smartphones. Okuza reports that there are currently roughly 2000 subscribers receiving weekly messages

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