N2Y4 Winner Transforming Medical World With 500 Used Cell Phones and a Motorcycle

By May 29, 2009

On a five-week trip to Malawi, Stanford undergrad Josh Nesbit, then 22, saw firsthand the inefficiencies of the East African country’s health-care system. Great geographic distances separate patients and clinics in Malawi’s rural areas, so health care workers, who are generally volunteers, have to walk long distances to care for patients and relay information and supplies, which greatly reduces medical response time and stretches already-thin resources. To respond to the poor conditions patients and health care workers faced, Nesbit collaborated with Ken Banks, the developer of Frontline SMS, to create FrontlineSMS:Medic.

“It’s amazing what you can do with 500 used cell phones and a motorcycle,” Nesbit said at Mobile Trends earlier this month.

The project’s mission is “to bridge a communication gap between these workers and the clinics,” said Dieterich Lawson, a developer for FrontlineSMS:Medic.

To do this, all All FrontlineSMS:Medic needs is a laptop and a SIM card; no internet connection is required, which both reduces cost and increases reach significantly.

“The main technological innovation we bring to the table is a suite of tools these clinics would be able to use to further enhance their health care,” Lawson said.

Using recycled cell phones, which cost $10 a handset, FrontlineSMS:Medic created a health-worker infrastructure that is now being implemented in developing countries across the globe.

“We’re harnessing the long tail of the mobile technology system,” Lawson said. “We’re focusing on low-end cell phones and usability, so we really have a grass-roots, dirt-level impact.”

“[The project is] integrating medical records, a mapping service for tracking patients and disease, as well as cell-level imaging on mobile phones, for diagnosing and treating malaria and AIDS.

In Malawi, the project has already saved $3,500 in motorcycle fuel and operating costs, as well as saving over a thousand hours in travel time. And, most importantly, is helping save lives.

“What we’re doing is trying to amplify the power of doctors in the developing world,” Lawson said.

In addition to winning the Mobile Challenge Award, FrontlineSMS:Medic also received the French American Charitable Trust Social Justice Award and The Microsoft Mobile Challenge for Development Award. In total, the project received $45,000 in N2Y4 rewards. Not bad for a group whose founder couldn't make the event because he had to finish his college senior thesis.

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