Let's play word association: intern + texting = ____. Setting up a date? Skipping out on work? Sexting? At IBM, how about saving millions of lives?
A new initiative called SMS for Life, born from the minds of a group of IBM's Extreme Blue interns and pharmaceutical company Novartis, uses cell phones, texting and an e-mapping Web site to track and manage the supply malaria-fighting drugs in Africa. The disease, carried by mosquitoes, kills nearly one million Africans each year—mostly pregnant women and small children. Many people die because the medicine distribution system is poorly managed, causing many villages to simply lack the necessary medication due to poor planning and limited availability.
The five-month pilot program is currently being tested in three diverse districts in in Tanzania, containing more than 130 villages and a total population of more than a million residents. Each week, health-care workers receive automated text messages reminding them to check their stock of anti-malarial drugs. The workers check their supplies and text back their current levels, allowing deliveries to be made where they are most needed, before supplies run out.
"It looks almost simplistic," says Peter Ward, the project's manager. "It's so trivial that anybody could have done it, but the fact is that nobody did." In sub-Saharan Africa, most data management is done all on paper. Several carbon copies of each document are made, then put in a slow mail process that could take days or weeks to arrive. "But everybody has a cell phone, and mobile phone signal coverage is pretty good," Ward says.
One of the main problems is staffing. "The people placing the orders are not really experienced in stock management, they're medical staff," says Ward. "They haven't got time to focus on ordering the right amount of stock, nobody has been checking on them, and there has been no data." But now health officials have data in front of them week by week that allows them to see exactly what the clinics used, how much they need, and how they can be advised. "That sort of thing is changing the way that theyre thinking about stock ordering," says Ward.
The project has made a huge impact already: Within the first few weeks of the program, the number of clinics that ran out of drugs was reduced by as much as 75%. One of the three districts is already down to zero stock-outs.
The program was developed by IBM, Vodafone, Novartis, which provides anti-malarial drugs at manufacturing costs and makes no profit from them, and the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, an initiative aiming to reduce annual malaria deaths to virtually zero by 2015. According to IBM, the project's success has the Tanzanian authorities interested in rolling out the initiative across the rest of the country. There are around 5,000 clinics, hospitals and dispensaries in Tanzania, and at any given time, as many as half could be out of the anti-malarial drugs.
It all sounds too simple to those of us in developed nations, but "there's a lot more to it, there's a whole culture behind it," says Ward. "We're helping make things a bit more proactive."
Photo by Olympia Wereko-Brobby, courtesy of IBM.