Collaboration: Text for Treatment

Fighting Ebola in West Africa with a health-care telecommunications service based on text messaging.

Mohamad-Ali Trad wants to curb chaos in Ebola-stricken West Africa. The infectious disease physician has worked with Doctors Without Borders on various missions including in Somalia, Sudan and Syria. He knows what goes on in crisis areas and his idea to help may be as impactful as it is underfunded.

Trad wants to establish a health-care telecommunications service based on text messaging. With his service, anyone feeling ill could send a text – for instance saying “fever,” “diarrhea,” or “Ebola” – to an emergency hotline number. As a response they would receive the address of the closest available hospital.

Their idea isn’t new; Trad and a friend who works in telecommunications originally came up with it as a solution to reduce patients’ waiting time in emergency rooms in Australia. Then Trad had an idea: “During my missions with Médecins Sans Frontières I noticed that no matter how distressed the population we served was, someone always had a mobile phone.

Some quick research revealed that most under-resourced areas actually have decent mobile coverage. This motivated Trad to pursue their idea for regions in crisis. When they tried to garner funding though, the researchers found their idea didn't fit the scope of investors and societies. But the urgency of recent events prompted the team to resume their search.

Trad, who is currently working in Singapore, heard from his boss who has just returned from Liberia how dire the situation in the affected regions is: "The infrastructure is breaking down. Hospitals are turning patients away. Then these patients take a five-hour-long mini-cab ride to get to the next facility." The longer patients travel, the higher the risk of contagion becomes. That’s why he and his friends want to help patients find the shortest way to receive treatment.

With their service, hospitals could say how many free beds they have – and for whom. “You have one hospital that can treat pneumonia, but not Ebola, while another one might be able to take in Ebola patients, but not pneumonia patients,” says Trad. The problem is patients don’t know about that.

Their low-tech solution of telling patients where to go might even be able to do more than “just” help in emergencies. The service could also forecast and localize future disease outbreaks by analyzing information from cell towers. “We need to start small, but you can expand on this system,” Trad says.

In a question on ResearchGate Trad asks peers for support for his project. He has received good advice and one lead for funding, but the team needs money to develop software and for community outreach: “At this stage we know that Ebola is spreading due to the poor health-care infrastructure in place. There is a lack of trust in the current system. Plenty of work will be needed to educate people.”