The use of technology is revolutionizing the way Kenya manages tuberculosis (TB). Through a computer- and mobile-phone based programme called TIBU, health facilities are able to request TB drugs in real-time and manage TB patient data more effectively, health officials say. They also use the platform to carry out health education.
“One of the challenges we have had with TB treatment is people defaulting [on treatment], but this will reduce significantly because through TIBU we will be able to track down patient treatment progress,” Joseph Sitienei, head of the Division of Leprosy, TB and Lung Disease at Kenya’s National AIDS Control Programme, told IRIN.
“By being able to track a patient, the health workers can send them reminders on their mobile phones when they fail to appear for drug refills,” Sitienei added.
In Kenya, a dearth of information on TB among patients and poor management of patient data have always been a challenge.
“People at times default not because they want to but because they lack information, and health facilities do not share patient data and history. Now the government is beginning to appreciate the relevance of technology in managing diseases such as TB,” said Vincent Munada, a clinical officer at the Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi.
Sitienei noted that TIBU - which is Swahili for “treat” - has also helped health facilities better manage drug supplies.
“Initially, health facilities used to request for TB drugs manually, but with this new system, they can ask for the same and the request is relayed to the ministry headquarters immediately. That way, drugs are supplied on time,” he said.
Kenya is ranked at 15 on the UN World Health Organization (WHO) list of 22 countries with the highest TB burden in the world, and it has the fifth-highest TB burden in Africa.
The government says an estimated 250 district hospitals, out of the country’s 290, are using the programme, which was launched in November 2012.
The government is also using the technology to support multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) patients living far from medical facilities, sending money to patients via the Mpesa mobile phone money-transfer system to cover transport costs.
Mobile phone platforms like TIBU could have even wider life-saving potential.
A recent report by multinational firm PricewaterhouseCoopers noted that mobile phone applications such as short text messages could, over the next five years, help African countries save over one million of the estimated three million lives lost annually across the continent to HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria and pregnancy-related conditions.
“SMS reminders to check for stock levels at the health centres have shown promising results in reducing stock-outs of key combination therapy medications for malaria, TB and HIV. For HIV patients, simple weekly text reminders have consistently shown higher adherence amongst the patients,” said the report.
According to the report, Kenya alone could save some 61,200 lives over the next five years by embracing mobile-based health information management.
On TB, PricewaterhouseCoopers said: “TB is a largely curable disease, but requires six months of diligent adherence to the medication regime. mHealth [mobile health] could help control TB mortalities by ensuring treatment compliance through simple SMS reminders.”
The report noted that mobile phone-based care for patients could reduce emergency visits to health facilities by up to “10 percent.”
“You know, at certain times, a patient doesn’t even need to come to a facility. You simply share what you have with them over the phone. It saves patients time and relieves the health worker to attend to other pressing issues,” Kenyatta National Hospital’s Munada said.
A 2012 study in Kenya found that the use of mobile phones between patients and health workers improved antiretroviral therapy adherence among people living with HIV.
In one mobile health project, community health workers were able to track their patients’ conditions through the use of text messages.