The University of Washington received a $250,000 grant this week to continue a project that allows pregnant women in remote Africa to access health care through text message.
Dr. Jennifer Unger, an assistant professor at UW, has been working on this mobile health care technology since 2012. She is the primary investigator on the Mobile WACh program, which is named for the UW’s Global Center for Integrated Health of Women, Adolescents and Children.
The new grant, awarded by Saving Lives at Birth, focuses specifically on assisting mothers in the months right before and after a baby is born.
Unger’s project connects women in Keyna, where health facilities are few and far between, with a nurse through texting. Her team has found that pregnant women in the study who are close to their due dates, or have recently given birth — and who are prompted by an automated text — are more responsive and interact more with a nurse in ways they never could have before.
The nurses can help via mobile phone with birth plans, neonatal services and appropriate family planning support.
For example, a woman could text and ask the nurse if their newborn baby is sick enough — of if they are sick enough — to make the trip to a health clinic. Many women in Kenya live far from health care facilities and often wait until it is too late to make the trip because they may have other children they can’t leave, or it is too expensive to travel.
Unger is focusing her study in Kenya because in 2015 the country reported more than 60,000 maternal and neonatal deaths, many of which would have been preventable with access to adequate health care. Also, the country has had an upsurge in mobile phone use.
The $250,000 grant provides funding for Unger’s team to validate the study’s concept in Kenya and evaluate its business model.
The ultimate goal, Unger said, is for the project to be integrated into the Kenyan health system.
“The project isn’t worthwhile unless it can be scalable and have longevity,” she said, adding that it will be perfect in Kenya or any country where the health care system is overstretched and has long wait and travel times for women who do visit a facility.