Saving Mothers’ Lives With Health Tips Via Phone

Ethonomic Indicator of the Day: 48 million–the number of women who give birth without doctors every year.


Expecting mothers in the developing world don’t have much. They often don’t even have doctors. And they die in childbirth at an appalling rate. But there is a good chance they have cell phones–more than a billion poor, rural women have one. Instead of finding ways to get doctors out to every woman, we can simply send them information on their phones. It’s not the same, but it does empower the women to take their health into their own hands if they need to. That’s what a new $10 million pilot program from USAID–supported by Johnson & Johnson–is working on.



The program, called–acronym alert, Mobile Allicance for Maternal Action (MAMA)–will launch in South Africa, India, Bangladesh. Those three countries with high rates of maternal and newborn deaths but also
high levels of cell phone penetration. Subscibers will receive messages about nutrition, the mothers health, the health of her unborn child, and prompts for visits to a clinic. “We don’t know exactly what those messages will be,” Sharon D’Agostino, Johnson & Johnson’s vice president of worldwide corporate contributions and community relations tells Fast Company. “A critical component is working with local health care providers to determine what the best messages are that fit with cultural norms and local health norms.”

What makes designing this system more difficult than simply deciding the health messages is that many of these women are illiterate. Simple text messages aren’t the best solution. So USAID is building an interactive voice system that will call the women with tips and let them interact. A woman registers by using their child’s due date, says USAID’s Sandhya Rao, and will then get automated, appropriate voice mails all the way through her child’s first birthday.

MAMA is also trying to find ways to offset the cost so that women don’t burn their cell phone credits getting their health tips, with private partnerships (that’s where Johnson & Johnson comes in). But, says Rao, there could also be user fees or advertising (where a company that makes baby products–Johnson & Johnson, say–could possibly come in, too, though support for MAMA comes from the company’s philanthropic arm). Once they figure out the system–with help from partners like the UN Foundation and the mHealth Alliance–in those three countries, they plan on expanding to the rest of the developing world. Helpful health tips sent to your phone might even be welcome here.

It’s important work: Lowering maternal mortality is one of the Millennium
Development Goals
. Right now, 50,000 women and 1.6 million children die
each year in childbirth; 48 million women give birth without doctors
and two million give birth alone.  Getting a few tips over the phone might not seem like much when you’re used to seeing the doctor multiple times during a pregnancy, but if you’re considering having your baby alone, a few tips over the phone
could make a huge difference.


Image from Flickr user whiteafrican

About the author

Morgan is a senior editor at Fast Company. He edits the Impact section, formerly Have an idea for a story? You can reach him at mclendaniel [at]