In 2009, IBM helped lead a humanitarian effort in a remote part of Africa that used everyday technology to get supplies of medicine to where they were needed the most. The project served as an example of how simple, inexpensive technologies used in innovative ways can improve the medicine supply chain and help save lives.
Malaria is a deadly disease that each year infects almost 250 million people and kills approximately 800,000 each year in sub-Saharan Africa. The mosquito-borne disease is treatable and preventable, and the tools to fight it are available. But medicines do not always reach the patients who need them, particularly in remote areas. In Tanzania, for example, 93 percent of its mainland population is at risk for malaria infection—especially pregnant women and young children.
In 2008, a team of international students from IBM’s internship program Extreme Blue worked with the pharmaceutical company Novartis on researching and refining proposed solutions to the long-standing problem of medicine stock-outs in Africa. Given that cell phone service was becoming common, even in remote areas of the continent, the final simple solution for tracking and managing supplies of anti-malarial drugs used a combination of mobile phones, SMS technologies and intuitive websites.
And then, after visits to clinics, hospitals and dispensaries across Tanzania in 2009, members of IBM, Novartis, the mobile phone carrier Vodafone and the Roll Back Malaria Partnership launched a five-month pilot called “SMS for Life” that used simple text messaging and cloud computing to help dispensaries avoid running out of vital stock. The pilot covered 226 villages in different geographic locations across Tanzania. The international team used the cloud-based collaboration and social business tools from
The SMS for Life system would send weekly automated messages to staff at participating healthcare facilities, prompting them to check their stock of medicines and reply with a text message that included detailed stock levels. The messages were collected and stored centrally on a website that provided the district medical officers and other users with information about stock levels. This information helped them to redistribute essential medicines to where they were most needed, as well as set up emergency deliveries if necessary.
“The SMS for Life program has already had a positive effect in Tanzania. I’ve seen district medical officers ordering urgent stock replacements for various health facilities. During a visit to 19 rural health facilities in one district alone, I saw huge improvements in their inventory management systems. I’m very impressed with the results so far and look forward to following the rest of the pilot through to completion.”
“Saving Lives with SMS for Life,” IBM press releaseDecember 14, 2009
“In Lindi Rural, stock-outs were completely eliminated in all 48 facilities by week eight of the pilot, a major improvement from 57% of facilities not having all malaria treatments at the beginning. Kigoma Rural increased availability from 7% to 53%, and Ulanga increased availability from 13% to 70%. The ‘SMS for Life’ pilot is an outstanding example of the tremendous power of partnerships, and what can be achieved by bringing together the competencies of non-profit and for-profit organizations committed to the same goal.”
“Rural health facilities in Tanzania use mobile and electronic mapping technology to save lives,” Roll Back Malaria press releaseApril 21, 2010
“It looks almost simplistic. It’s so trivial that anybody could have done it, but the fact is that nobody did.”
“Are Your Interns Saving the World? IBM’s Are,” Fast CompanyDecember 15, 2009
The results were immediate. During the first few weeks of the pilot, the number of health facilities that had run out of medicine in one district alone was reduced by more than 75 percent.
A final report submitted to the Tanzanian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare in April 2010 showed that at the start of the pilot project, 25 percent of all health facilities did not have any of the five most effective anti-malarial combination medicines in stock; but by the end, 95 percent had at least one dosage form in stock. In addition, 888,000 people in the three pilot districts had access to all malaria treatments at the close of the pilot, versus 264,000 people at the start. Overall, the project helped reduce the chances that health facilities had run out of vital malaria treatments by 300 percent.
“The outcome has been hundreds of lives saved,” said Tanzanian Minister of Health and Social Welfare Professor David Mwakyusa.
The success of SMS for Life prompted Tanzanian authorities to begin implementing similar programs in other areas ravaged by malaria. And it was one of several ways IBM was using existing technologies to respond to medicine-related challenges in the supply chain.
Selected team members who contributed to this Icon of Progress:
- Peter Ward SMS for Life Project Manager, IBM Client Technical Advisor Program Manager for Northeast Europe