Health care delivery is an issue everywhere, but it’s particularly challenging in the developing world. Expired medicines, broken equipment, unreliable electricity, and a lack of even the most basic supplies are everyday issues for medical practitioners.

“Fortunate hospitals can get regular shipments, but when those shipments end, the shelves are bare once more. Health care, especially rural health care, is in an appalling state in many countries because the government has abdicated its job of financing it,” writes Tina Rosenberg for the New York Times “Fixes” blog.

Our vision is to have a technology that affects billions of people across the developing world through the organisations that provide the essential supplies that they need.

“Poor governments respond to public pressure just like rich ones—that’s why health for the rural poor, who have no clout, is neglected to begin with. Showing that a hospital can work is powerful. It doesn’t just improve health, it increases pressure, and that’s what improves health.”

Enter Reliefwatch, a for-profit social enterprise developed by University of Chicago dropout Daniel Yu. Reliefwatch offers health centers in emerging markets a cloud-based tool to track both essential medical supplies and outbreaks of infectious diseases. No direct government support needed. No internet connection required.

“The vast majority of health clinics in the developing world don’t have access to computers or the internet. As a result, they don’t have information systems in place to keep track of what they have,” said Yu.

“When the clinic runs out of a particular drug or medicine, the supplier doesn't know about that. In the meantime, anyone who comes in and needs that particular medicine is essentially out of luck. It’s a big problem.

“What we do is integrate our solution with the technology they do have: basic mobile phones. More than 90% of people in the developing world have a mobile phone—in fact, more people have a mobile phone than have access to running water.”

Since Reliefwatch launched earlier this year, health workers at Global Brigades clinics in Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama have digitized more than nine million units of medical supplies and reduced various expirations by up to 90 percent, according to Yu.

The process is simple. A health clinic workers receives a call to their mobile phone on a prescheduled basis—say, each day at 5pm, Reliefwatch’s interactive, automated voice response process allows the worker to record how many bottles of medicine they have or need, whether acetaminophen or antibiotics, by punching in the values on the phone’s number pad.

The data is updated and stored on a cloud system, allowing support staff anywhere in the world to stay informed or file resupply requests in time.

“To health clinic workers, it appears to be a basic voice call—and it is, from a functionality perspective—but on the backend, the technology integrates with a web portal. All the information is immediately transferred,” Yu said.

“The voice call could go out to somebody in Sierra Leone and, immediately after, someone in an office in New York City can log on, see the dashboard with the updated information, and understand what’s happening on the ground.”

The social enterprise, which has support for 12 languages, is currently scaling-up its impact across the Atlantic by launching a program in Liberia to track Ebola supplies at health clinics backed at USAID. Yu and his team are also looking to expand to government health ministries over the next year and see potential food and disaster aid, as well as in agriculture since the database can track any type of inventory-shoes, Advil, lettuce, whatever.

“The data we’ve been able to gather in terms of what medicine is going where, what is being distributed, how often it’s being used in that particular community - that is exactly the type of information that organisations need to know,” said Yu. “Right now they’re essentially operating in this black hole of information in the last mile.

“Our vision is to have a technology that affects billions of people across the developing world through the organisations that provide the essential supplies that they need.”

-By John Townsend, media manager at Ashoka Changemaker. You can follow John on twitter here @JohnCTownsend.

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