How Family Health International  uses wireless technology to help deliver health care

Doctors in lab coats, vials of liquids and brightly-lit facilities are common images of clinical research and healthcare. However, organizations like Family Health International (FHI) are using cutting-edge technologies in African and Asian countries that are changing traditional approaches.

An infrastructure of nearly four billion mobile phones around the world provides FHI with a cost-effective means to leverage innovative healthcare collaborations. Widely known in the United States for quick mobile phone communications, SMS/texting has been adapted as a way to remind individuals to take life-saving medication or to return for check-ups.

“Limitations inherently require thinking out of the box – and that’s what promotes innovation,” says Mark Dronzek, FHI’s Chief Information Officer. “Technology is a critical enabler but the key is fit-for-purpose solutions. One-size-fits-all approaches don’t work when you’re in some of the most challenging environments on the planet. For example, something we generally take for granted in the U.S. – availability of network connectivity – is prohibitively expensive and subject to frequent outages. With little to no conventional wire or cable infrastructure, it often mandates VSAT usage; but conversely, this frees you from geographical boundaries.”

FHI also uses PDAs to collect and analyze health data in research and public health programs. Replacing paper, PDA software features built-in rules to ensure valid data entry that can be transmitted real-time for subsequent analysis and review. This not only quickens data analysis but allows field workers to make immediate adjustments to program activities, ensuring the program is running effectively.

Another cutting-edge technology FHI leverages is geographic information systems (GIS). Widely used in U.S. cities to map optimal routes for public transportation and location of public facilities, GIS has enormous potential to accelerate the delivery of treatment and education to affected populations. FHI uses GIS to optimize healthcare facilities, as well as predict what future impact areas will look like. Given that there may only be a few experts per medical specialty in a region, FHI uses a combination of these technologies to connect physicians and practitioners from all regions. “We need to connect practitioners on a consistent basis to share their expertise and best practices,” says Dronzek.

The key to scaling and sustaining any solution, however, lies in FHI’s recent membership in NetHope, an IT consortium of more than 25 leading international NGOs. As a single entity representing more than 25 members, NetHope is able to attract additional funding, technology resources and business consulting services to support projects the broader NGO community has deemed as important priorities.

In an effort to not “reinvent the proverbial wheel,” says Dronzek, FHI actively shares and seeks solutions from other NetHope members. Through partnerships with NetHope’s commercial supporters, who provide a combination of funding, technology resources and business consulting services, the probability of solutions being successfully expanded increases dramatically.

“By working with our NetHope partners and their wealth of experience, we’re confident that we can build long-term solutions for FHI as well as the broader NGO community, and most importantly, reach the millions of beneficiaries of our missions.”