Dimagi: Boosting Healthcare through Mobile Technology

Posted By: Michael Snyder|Dated: August 10, 2012

There are nearly 920 million cell phones in India. Of every 1000 children born in India, 47 die in infancy.

These two seemingly unrelated statistics illustrate the pride and shame of India’s development story. In developing nations around the world, American healthcare technology firm Dimagi has been using the former to combat the latter, pioneering new technologies that use cell phones to bolster the efforts of community healthcare workers in low-resource settings.

With its core technology, CommCare, Dimagi brings customized job aids to community healthcare workers via mobile phones, and provides for the first time a remote storage and management system for patient records. “The initial thought was that we were going to crunch data in public health,” says CEO Jonathan Jackson, who, along with three colleagues at Harvard and MIT Media Lab, began developing Dimagi in 2002. “As we got more into the space, it became pretty clear that in developing countries […] it wasn’t really the people to crunch the data that was missing, it was the underlying technology to collect the data in the first place.”

CommCare was born to address that lack. Since 2004, when Dimagi launched full-time, the company has placed products in 29 different countries, with 50 projects currently in operation and more than 2500 registered mobile users.

Of those projects, 15 are spread across nine Indian states, making India Dimagi’s largest and fastest growing sector. Dimagi’s Delhi office, its first overseas branch, opened in 2010 with just two staff members. Only two years later, the team in India has grown to ten people, roughly a third of the company’s 35 total employees. Dimagi has followed that success by launching a second branch office in Cape Town earlier this year to serve projects in Africa, where Dimagi landed its first contracts nearly a decade ago. Now a Latin American branch is in the early planning stages.

“People [in India] seem to be very accepting of technology as a way to change what they’re doing,” says Matt Theis, Dimagi’s India Country Director. “There’s an excitement and optimism here that doesn’t exist in too many places around the world, and a lot of that seems to be focused around technology.”

Jeremy Wacksman, a Dimagi field worker based in Mumbai, has observed the adaptability of local health workers in the field. “Sometimes you see skepticism in these rural communities,” he says. “People wonder ‘how are you going to give these people phones when they don’t know how to use them,’ but people learn it.”

More than learn it, the workers using CommCare help to shape the software. Image and audio tools, for instance, were initially developed to confront literacy problems for a project in Afghanistan but have since evolved into an essential CommCare feature – what Jackson describes as “a mechanism to really empower what the frontline workers [are] doing with the phone.” Wacksman has seen first-hand how these technologies have helped to ameliorate “credibility issues” for workers in the most traditional communities.

With CommCare, healthcare workers can efficiently track their patients, helping to prioritize follow-ups and patient needs. Using the same data, Dimagi’s researchers “can track health performance indicators that were difficult to track before, or that with a paper system may not have been accurate,” says Theis.

Using those indicators, Dimagi will launch a randomized control trial this month, part of a three-pronged health-tech project in association with BBC, World Health Partners and the Gates Foundation. Placing CommCare in the hands of 600 healthcare workers in Bihar, over the course of a year, Dimagi will compare the efficacy of CommCare-empowered workers compared to those still using a paper system. “We hope to show through data [that CommCare] has impact and potential,” Theis says.

As Dimagi spreads geographically, it will also spread in impact, scaling up existing projects with an ultimate goal of local government uptake, and expanding the reach of its technologies into fields like agriculture, education and personal finance.

The data gathered now will not just prove the potential of CommCare and Dimagi. It will also prove extraordinary potential of ordinary people when empowered with simple tools, innovative technologies and companies committed to making an impact, one community at a time.

Michael Snyder graduated with a bachelors degree in English literature and comparative religion from Columbia University in 2010. Immediately after, he moved to Santiago, Chile, where he worked for This is Chile, the online publication for the government’s Fundación Imagen País. He now works primarily out of Mumbai. His work has appeared in publications like ArtSlant, Killing the Buddha, GQ, ELLE, Open and The Caravan.

The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group.

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