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The health-care cure: Your cell phone

Tech Daily: One company wants to help medical workers in Third World countries treat patients via mobile phones.

By Jessica Shambora, writer-reporter
Last Updated: December 30, 2008: 12:48 PM ET

Dimagi offers a free mobile-phone service that enables health-care workers to treat patients in developing countries from afar.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- In many countries outside the United States, the cell phone is technology's answer to the Swiss army knife, functioning as a wallet, personal computer and more.

In developing countries, they're also playing a unique role: helping improve health care. Cell phones increasingly are used to respond to disease outbreaks, educate the local populace about illnesses, and remind patients to take their medications.

"Mobile phones are helping developing countries to be on the cutting edge of health systems throughout the world," said Prabhjot Singh Dhadialla, a program director at the Center for Global Health and Economic Development at Columbia University's Earth Institute.

Partnerships between governments, foundations, non-profit organizations, and private companies are making it happen.

A leader in the field, Dimagi, was one of five finalists for the 2008 Legatum/Fortune Technology Prize, which recognizes for-profit companies that are using technology to help fix Third World problems. Dimagi was founded by three alumni of the MIT Media Lab, which helps spawn technology and design solutions to help solve real-world challenges, including the One Laptop Per Child program that aims to give a networked laptop to every school-age child in the developing world.

Dimagi was established in 2002 after its founders concluded that, contrary to popular belief, solving the developing world's health crises could be done cheaply and without basic infrastructure like hospitals or roads. "People were being too academic" about the problems, said Dr. Vikram Kumar, Dimagi's chief medical officer.

Kumar and his partners embraced the MIT Media Lab's "demo or die" approach to finding solutions. Instead of publishing endless studies, they identified specific problems that appeared ripe for low-cost fixes.

One obvious combination: poor health care and the exploding growth in mobile phone use. While most Third World residents will never own a computer, they now account for about one-third of the 4 billion mobile subscribers, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

Making money - and a difference

Over the last six years, Dimagi has developed cell-phone based programs in eight countries, relying mostly on grants and government contracts for funding. But few of these endeavors, while interesting and helpful, have been profitable. Kumar calls Dimagi "not-for-very-profit."

Now, Kumar and his partners are looking for ways to do good and make money. One promising Dimagi product: CommCare, a mobile phone-based program for health-care workers in regions where basic medical care is limited.

CommCare allows lower-skilled workers to gather information, refer patients for treatment, or even monitor outbreaks of epidemics, by following a questionnaire encoded on the device. The community workers send information about patients back to clinics in real-time, enabling physicians to monitor a patient's progress or identify those in need of urgent care. The free program is based on an open-source tool for mobile software, called JavaROSA platform, which anyone can use at no cost.

CommCare is now being tested in Tanzania, where AIDS is an epidemic. But Dimagi executives envision selling custom features to partners like the Millennium Villages Project, a broad-based initiative by the United Nations and others to overcome pervasive poverty in Africa. CommCare might also be sold as subscription-based service that includes ongoing customer support.

The company's business model is akin to Red Hat (RHT), which makes money by taking the freely-available Linux operating system and altering it to meet a customer's specific needs.

Dimagi is also eyeing other revenue-generating opportunities. One possibility is to help U.S. companies reach consumers in emerging markets. In Bangladesh, for example, Dimagi has developed a program where people can call and listen to a soap opera with a storyline that educates them about hand hygiene. The company hopes the program will attract U.S. consumer products giants like Procter & Gamble (PG, Fortune 500) or Johnson & Johnson (JNJ, Fortune 500) as sponsors.

"We're tackling problems that make economic sense and are something we care about and think we could make a big difference in," said CEO Jonathan Jackson. To top of page

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