SMS reporting saves lives in Sierra Leone

The SMS platform helps the government track healthcare supplies and plan for where they are needed most

By Harriet Mason
Health workers Kabiru Kargbo
UNICEF Sierra Leone/2016/Mason
21 November 2016

PORT LOKO, Sierra Leone, 21 November 2016 – Nurse Kabiru Kargbo knows what to do. As soon as his health facility receives a delivery of supplies he pulls out his mobile phone and gets ready to report. He responds to some basic questions by SMS and sends the information back to the national level. Almost immediately the Ministry of Health and Sanitation knows its supplies have reached their destination.

The supplies – procured by UNICEF with funding from the European Union, the UK Department for International Development (DfID) and USAID – are part of the government’s Free Health Care initiative and will be given out free of charge to children under five and to pregnant and breast-feeding mothers.

Everyone involved wants to make sure the life-saving supplies make it to the 1,200 government-run health facilities across the country. Thanks to USAID support, UNICEF’s open source RapidPro system is being used to track the supplies by mobile phone.

Ahead of the latest distribution, the Ministry of Health and Sanitation together with UNICEF trained health workers from around the country on how to use the platform, which allows reporting on basic mobile phones.

Free health care supplies arrive at the Port Loko Government Hospital in Sierra Leone
UNICEF Sierra Leone/2016/Mason
Free health care supplies arrive at the Port Loko Government Hospital in Sierra Leone, one of 1,200 health facilities part of the government health initiative.

“I encourage you to fully utilize the system as it will make your work easier and even increase trust from the donors, government and the communities you serve in,” UNICEF Health Officer Diana Koroma told health staff during one training session.

Every health facility is required to report on the drugs and supplies within 24 hours of receiving them by mobile SMS. In comparison, the previous reporting system could take many days, particularly for those in hard to reach areas of the country. The long paper-based chain of reporting slowed down the response system – making it difficult to get an accurate picture of where supplies had been delivered.

Now, in the capital Freetown, the results are only a click away. “This new technology is making our work much easier by giving us a shorter and more direct chain of reporting,” said Nurse Kabiru. “I simply need to have a charged phone and mobile network – no need for an internet connection or even phone credit.”

A group of pregnant women attend an antenatal session
UNICEF Sierra Leone/2016/Mason
A group of pregnant women attend an antenatal session. Under the Free Health Care initiative, pregnant and breast-feeding women, as well as children under five, receive free medical services.

Back at the Port Loko District Government Hospital, the district pharmacist takes note of the newly arrived Free Health Care supplies while a group of pregnant women attend an antenatal session. “The Free Health Care programme has really helped us the women of child bearing age and our little children in Sierra Leone,” said Khadija Koroma, who is eight months pregnant and has been accessing the Free Health Care services for over five months. “Now I don’t have any reason to miss clinic sessions because it is free and I don’t have to worry about money,” she said.

As efforts to improve maternal and child health in the country continue, data collected through the new system will go a long way in helping the government make sure supplies are available throughout the country, especially for those most in need.