A Giant Leap for Health Care in Uganda

Ugandan doctors pilot electronic communications

Canadian-funded project facilitates clinic-to-clinic data transmission.

OTTAWA –The launch of a nationwide, wireless network to improve Uganda’s ability to treat patients and combat the spread of disease was recently announced. The network is built around the country’s well-established cell phone network, inexpensive handheld computers, and innovative wireless servers called "Jacks." The technology allows health care workers to access and share critical information in remote facilities without fixed telephone lines or regular access to electricity.

The announcement was made by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), WideRay, a wireless technology company based in San Francisco, and SATELLIFE, a non-profit organization focused on improving health in developing countries.

The Jack servers, which are about the size of a thick textbook and use long lasting industrial-grade batteries ¾ a single charge lasts up to a year ¾ are being installed in health care facilities across Uganda. Health workers can link to the device using the infrared port on their handheld computers to retrieve or submit information, and to access email.

"This is going to be a giant leap forward for Ugandan health care. It could save thousands of lives and have significant benefits in health outcomes for Uganda’s citizens," said Holly Ladd, Executive Director of SATELLIFE.

This project will provide health practitioners in the field with tools that were previously unavailable or outdated. For example, users can now access the latest treatment guidelines for tuberculosis and malaria and learn of the most cost-effective approaches to fight HIV/AIDS, which infects one in 10 adults in Uganda. They can also read the latest medical journals and textbooks from around the world, in a digital form.

Uganda, like many developing countries that lack the infrastructure readily available in the developed world, is leapfrogging traditional fixed-line communication networks and adopting mobile, cellular technologies to provide communication links to remote locations. There are already three competing mobile-telephone service providers in the country, the largest of which is MTN Uganda. The same networks that are providing villages with their first voice connection to the outside world are being used to deliver data to where it’s needed most, to community health workers.

Uganda’s wireless health care initiative is an expansion of SATELLIFE trials with personal digital assistants (PDAs), or handheld computers, that began in 2001. The projects concluded that PDAs, which can be used in environments where computers are impractical, are powerful tools that can provide critical, timely information to African health workers.

The technology should also improve health care administration by reducing the time taken to submit, analyze and respond to reports and requests for supplies.

Recognizing the potential of this technology for Uganda, Connectivity Africa, a Canadian government initiative managed by IDRC and funded from Canada’s Fund for Africa, contributed $761,000 CAD to the development of this information network.

"The convergence of new technologies low-cost handhelds, broad and reliable wireless coverage and WideRay’s innovative use of it have made applications that once seemed impossible in Africa a reality," said Richard Fuchs, Director of IDRC’s Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) program area. "This project will be a powerful example to the rest of the world of what is possible with wireless technology."

Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) is one of the world’s leading institutions in the generation and application of new knowledge to meet the challenges of international development. For more than 30 years, IDRC has worked in close collaboration with researchers from the developing world in their search for the means to build healthier, more equitable, and more prosperous societies.


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