YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Obstacles to effective health care delivery in Benin, a small West African nation of 12 million, are almost too numerous to list. They include chronic poverty, a shortage of trained personnel, inadequate medical infrastructure, and difficulties in reaching isolated rural populations.
Yet as it turns out, those roadblocks can be cleared away by the simple sound of a cell phone ringing.
For some time, most health care campaigns in underdeveloped nations have entailed workers going door to door armed with registers and ballpoint pens, recording the names and details of every person concerned with the specific campaign, as in the case of malaria.
Digital technologies, however, have now arrived to ease not only the burden on health care workers, but also cut down on patient expenses and enable a larger number of people to have access to medical services.
Last year, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the country’s Ministry of Health partnered with the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Family Health International 360 to introduce digital tools and dashboards for data collection in the case of Onchocerciasis, a parasitic tropical disease caused by repeated bites of the black hump-backed fly.
The disease is commonly referred to as “river blindness.”
The introduction of digital tools was meant to “improve campaign effectiveness through real-time monitoring, thereby maximizing the distribution of preventative treatment to the eligible population in the affected communities in the country,” according to CRS.
Such digitization is now being extended to include various aspects of the entire health care system of Benin.
With the use of mobile phones, distance has practically been removed as an obstacle and health care delivery is getting more effective.
“For each campaign, a digital system consists of android software applications as well as a web dashboard that’s installed on cell phones,” said Elijah Egwu, senior program manager for CRS’s Benin Digitization Project in comments to Crux.
“The system is used for training, counting households, and for distributions,” he said.
He explained that phones are distributed to teams of community health care workers, who are trained on the technology as well as relevant aspects of the campaign.
“The health care workers are deployed to designated villages to collect and input comprehensive household information. The resulting data is then processed and used to determine what type of health care is most appropriate for each household,” he told Crux.
“Trained health campaign supervisors have direct access to this data in real time, which helps track the effectiveness of the distributions. What’s more, each household becomes identifiable on a map within the dashboard. At the end of the campaign, metrics are produced that help determine the campaign’s overall effectiveness.”
He described digitization as “a game changer” when it comes to improving health outcomes in a country such as Benin.
“Not only does digitizing data ensure health care reaches rural villages, but it also improves accountability and limits waste and the misappropriation of resources,” he told Crux.
“We know that because of this work, less people will die from easily preventable diseases like malaria. We also know that this type of work saves money. Make no mistake: Investing in this type of programming is surely a way to improve health care for all,” he explained.
According to Sean Gallagher, country representative for CRS in Benin, the digitization move is part of a larger package introduced by the government to enhance health care in the impoverished country.
“The Benin government recently implemented free medical insurance for the poorest patients while enacting a robust reform strategy to increase the coverage and quality of health services,” he told Crux.
He explained that the country’s health ministry has a goal to improve the skills and compensation of their community health care workers; improve the overall health infrastructure; and realize a fully digitized health care system, “which will improve their ability to make data-driven decisions.”
“We’re already seeing significant progress toward health care digitization. For example, in 2019, CRS supported the National Malaria Control Program to digitize, for the first time ever, its long-lasting insecticide-treated bed net campaign, reaching over 12 million people,” Gallagher said.
“This was followed by the digitization of the ministry’s seasonal malaria chemo prevention campaign, and its river blindness campaign. The digitization of these campaigns resulted in faster data collection, improved data quality, and a better understanding of the numbers of people that had been reached during each campaign.”
“Such information enables the ministry to reach the ‘last mile’ of service delivery, especially for remote populations,” Galagher told Crux.
He said the country’s health care system was still burdened by neonatal disorders, malaria, lower respiratory infections, and diarrheal diseases, which “account for the largest number of deaths.”
He said despite the progress made, much can be done and that is where the digitization process is critical.
“It gives us a significant edge in reaching more people and reducing mortality from malaria while showing promise at addressing other major causes of death,” he told Crux.
“We’re happy to report that CRS is working with the Ministry of Health, and the Clinton Health Access Initiative, to expand the use of digital solutions within the country’s health care system,” Galagher told Crux.