09/18/2012 07:22 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2012

1 Billion Ways to Improve Health


In Mazabuka, Zambia, it was early morning and there was already a long line outside the door, 100+ mothers deep, waiting patiently at the maternal health clinic to see the two midwives on staff. I was greeted by Stella, the manager of the facility. She is a competent woman with a warm demeanor and compassionate eyes. She welcomes me warmly and brings me inside the maternity room, a small space that holds three folding beds. There is a plastic bucket near one of the beds, filled partially with water and a sink in an adjoining doorway. While sparse, the room was clean and well kept. Just that morning, a young mother had successfully given birth in the clinic and was discharged with her new baby girl.

Diana runs a strong operation but struggles to meet the demands of managing a facility. More than anything, she wants to motivate her overextended team of dedicated health professionals. With human capacity running at less than 50% in Zambia's health system, she shares with me the success of a mobile program, Project Mwana, a sort of "personal assistant" called RemindMi that sends her Community Health Workers a SMS text by tracking patients for antenatal appointments, HIV testing, and infant diagnosis results. The program is a welcome relief to both Diana and her team who relied on paper files, in-person discussion, and many times, memory. Discussions are underway with the government to extend mobile services from first antenatal clinic to registering births at clinics, and tracking outbreaks and immunizations.

Facilities such as this one across Africa are innovating with mobile phones to improve health for their mothers and address their health systems. For example, in South Africa, mobile phone ownership is over 100%, meaning some people own more than one phone! MAMA is using the nearly universal access/ownership of mobile phones to sign up pregnant and new moms for free mobile health messages. Recently selected as a finalist for Fast Company Innovation Award, MAMA is expanding its work by providing reliable, health information. Its adaptable messages are available for free on their website, and 74 organizations in 35 countries have already taken advantage of this service.

As behalf of Johnson & Johnson, I am honored to work with partners such as UNICEF, and together with USAID, UN Foundation, mHealth Alliance, and BabyCenter to be Founding Partners of MAMA. Together, we have a shared commitment to the health of mothers and their babies. More than ever, the promise of mobile phones to accelerate progress in achieving Millennium Development Goals 4 + 5 is upon us and it is already changing lives of mothers and the community health works who care for them.

Next time you send a text message, think about how this simple technology is saving lives across Africa.