Mobile-based emergency healthcare eases family worries in Myanmar

Bright Start brings many families a lifeline

By Saw Wai Moe and Ruth Ayisi
UNICEF Myanmar
UNICEF Myanmar/2022/Nyan Zay Htet
26 July 2022

For many families in Myanmar, the cost of health care – if it is even available – can drain a family’s already meagre income.

Thinn Yamone, a mother of two young children aged five months and three years, used to work in a toy factory. She now depends on her husband, a mason - but as there is no demand for building jobs during the rainy season (April-October), he can only do low-paying jobs, such as cutting grass.

Some days her husband cannot work at all, as he suffers from pulmonary arterial hypertension. “We barely earn enough to live on,” said Thinn Yamone.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing crisis in the country has pushed an increasing number of families deep into poverty, particularly those living in urban areas under martial law, like North Okkalar Township in Yangon, where Thin Yamone lives.

Her family lives in a makeshift home in her aunt’s compound. They have no electricity or running water and must buy water for drinking and fetch water for washing from a monastery, a 15-minute bike ride away.

They share her aunt’s latrine. “We had plans to build a latrine of our own, but those plans have been dashed,” said Thinn Yamone.

A rapid mini-survey conducted by UNICEF in 2021 on access to basic services in the Yangon townships of Hlaing-Thar-Yar and Shwe-Pyi-Thar found the main barriers to health services included: unavailability of services (61 per cent); financial barriers (30 per cent); and concerns about safety and security in accessing services (17 per cent).[1] 

UNICEF Myanmar
UNICEF Myanmar/2022/Nyan Zay Htet
Thinn Yamon's small home lacks basic amenities such as electricity, running water and a latrine

Responding to the needs identified, with generous contribution from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Swiss Natcom, UNICEF launched Bright Start in six townships in peri-urban Yangon, which are home to some of the very poorest families.

Bright Start – a joint initiative between UNICEF and a private company, Common Health Myanmar, provides innovative, mobile-based primary health care services.

The scheme means that Thinn Yamone no longer has to cut back on food in order to afford to take her children to a doctor.

“Since I enrolled in the Bright Start programme, I feel reassured that I have a place to turn to if my children get sick,” said Thinn Yamone.

“It has really eased my anxieties,” said Thinn Yamone. My doctor always explains things thoroughly and carefully. She’s patient. It helps reduce some of our worries so we can now focus on making a living.”

UNICEF Myanmar
UNICEF Myanmar/2022/Nyan Zay Htet
One aspect of Bright Start is the provision of telemedicine to registered beneficiaries

The scheme includes free 24/7 on-call health services with a doctor, health information delivered via voice and text messages and other channels, as well as the provision of outpatient costs and hospital cash grants for serious illnesses or accidents.

Pregnant women are entitled to free ultrasound, blood tests and tetanus shots. There is also a complaint and feedback mechanism.

Dr. Thae Myat Cho, who joined Common Health Myanmar in February 2022, says she is monitoring about 2,000 service users. “I even treated a child with scabies,” said Dr Thae Myat Cho.

UNICEF Myanmar
UNICEF Myanmar/2022/Nyan Zay Htet
Thinn Yamone is relieved that she no longer has to worry about how her family will pay for medical expenses if her children become sick

“The family had been using ointments their neighbours recommended, but the scabies became infected, and the child developed a fever. I discovered the whole family had scabies. They recovered after using the antibiotics I prescribed.”

To increase digital literacy and overcome communication challenges, Bright Start provides digital support through Viber chatbots.

As of June 2022, it has provided free health care to more than 30,000 people, including more than 18,000 children under the age of five and 9,000 under the age of seven.

[1] UNICEF survey by phone to 306 household, 31 March to 2 April 2021