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The Rise of Healthcare Robots: A $2.25 Million Award Winner

In sub-Saharan Africa, where access to healthcare is limited, Reach Digital Health is using mobile technology to provide people with healthcare information and guidance. With a goal to empower people who don’t have access to healthcare professionals, Reach Digital Health is using SMS and WhatsApp messaging to answer health-related questions and provide maternal and child health information to marginalized people.

The Skoll Foundation, which invests in and honors social change, selects a group of social innovators each year “whose work targets the root causes of societal problems that are ripe for transformational social change.” Reach Digital Health is one of the five social innovators that received the Skoll Awards for Social Innovation, receiving $2.25 million to further their work.

Debbie Rogers, the CEO of Reach Digital Health, says that their organization works to bridge the gap of access to healthcare by empowering people who don’t have access to someone to talk to about their health. The organization uses text messaging and WhatsApp to have ongoing exchanges with people about their physical, mental, and reproductive health. With many people in sub-Saharan Africa only having access to mobile phones, Reach Digital Health taps into the power of mobile technology to empower people.

Individuals can sign up in one of two ways. The first is through a clinical setting. For instance, at their first prenatal visit, all expecting mothers in South Africa’s public health care system are invited by a medical professional to join MomConnect Africa. When a woman agrees to participate, she begins to receive automated updates about scheduling future prenatal appointments and how best to nourish and care for her developing baby.

In an independent analysis of the program, a South African research team headed by Donald Skinner of the Human Sciences Research Council found there were some problems with translation quality and network coverage but concluded that overall, “The women were consistently positive about MomConnect, attaching high value to the content of the messages and the medium in which they were delivered.”

To contact those who don’t participate in the health-care system, Reach Digital Health uses mass media, advertising, and community-based organizations to encourage people to enroll. These invitations come in the form of specific calls to action, like: “Need to register for a vaccination?” or “Are you worried that you might have COVID-19?” followed by a prompt to dial a number. Once people are in the system, they’re exposed to the breadth of Reach Digital Health’s offerings, including being invited to ask open-ended questions about their health and responding to automated inquiries about how they’re feeling.

Reach Digital Health fields millions of questions and dispatches millions of mostly automated, computerized answers per day. Milton Madanda, the director of platform at Reach Digital Health, says they’ve built a system that uses both simple question-and-answer algorithms and more complex machine learning approaches to scan the incoming inquiries for keywords. Like “pregnancy” and “vaccine” during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when people were asking questions around immunization safety.

Other words or responses trigger additional interventions. If someone includes a word like “bleeding” in their message, for example, the system will either instruct them to visit their nearest clinic as soon as possible or facilitate putting them in touch with a health-care facility. Same thing for that comment from the person who wrote that she was 39 weeks pregnant and noticed a pink discharge. The system responded: “It sounds like this might be serious. In an emergency, please go to your health provider immediately, or call one of the below Emergency Numbers.”