Transforming lives through texts: using mHealth for behaviour change

Posted on 18th February 2020

woman on phone in tree

Written by Lorna Marsh, Senior Editor, Thrive

An old mobile phone and 140 characters. It may sound basic but it is empowerment for countless women around the globe.

Before International Women’s Day and with attention turning towards Mother’s Day we look at how Thrive is improving the lives of millions of mothers who would otherwise be without care – and the work we’re doing now to enhance one of those projects.

In many developing countries there is better access to simple mobile phone technology than there is to clean water.

It is a startling statistic but it opens up the opportunity to give women vital health information in a simple but potentially life-changing way.

Text messages giving evidence-based health advice can transform, or even save, lives. Using specialist behaviour change expertise, Thrive have helped millions of women and babies in low resource settings through a range of projects.

On International Women’s Day and with Mother’s Day approaching, our director Daphne Metland and head of behaviour change Gayatri Koshy are in South Africa working on expanding and improving one of those programmes, MomConnect.

Daphne said: “Projects like this are absolutely vital to giving the right advice to vulnerable women and empowering them to make good choices for themselves and their children. We have the medical experts and the behaviour change skills to transform lives through seemingly simple messaging services.

“MomConnect alone reaches 700,000 women in South Africa a year, giving free support to pregnant women and new mums who would otherwise have little to no care.

“As a result more women now access antenatal care, there is better HIV diagnosis for their babies and fewer babies are born at a low birthweight.”

Daphne and Gayatri are in South Africa for a week, meeting with both experts and users to make a new range of enhanced messages as helpful, effective and engaging as possible to the women most in need. Thrive works with partners Johnson & Johnson and the South African National Department of Health to create and deliver the free messages.

Increasing breastfeeding rates in Ghana

Meanwhile the messages we’ve created for a Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) project in Ghana have nearly doubled the percentage of women who exclusively breastfed their babies, from 44% to 78%.

The number of women sleeping under a mosquito net also doubled while more women – three-quarters – take their baby to hospital when they are ill.

Since MAMA was founded by the United States Agency for International Development, Johnson & Johnson and BabyCenter, more than 5,000 messages created by us have reached three million women in more than 50 developing countries. The messages have been translated into 24 languages and are used by over 160 organisations.

In Timor-Leste MAMA has helped double the number of women having postpartum care and has seen a 17% rise in deliveries at a health facility.

Improving lives in the land of Slumdog Millionaire

It’s not just text messages that are transforming lives either, we’ve delivered a series of audio messages to help women in India’s poorest slums – including Dharavi, home to a million people and the location for Slumdog Millionaire – as part of the mMitra project in partnership with BabyCenter. This has resulted in more women using clinics and earlier registration during pregnancy.

For longer content we have taken advantage of Facebook Free Basics and which can be accessed by millions of people in developing countries. Information, including news, health and education resources are made available without data charges.

In partnership with BabyCenter we have produced health and care articles reaching more than 5 million new and expecting mothers in low literacy populations, in 40 countries and in over 27 languages.

The projects are also responsive – during the 2016 Zika outbreak we produced specific advice on preventing the virus for Facebook Free Basics, and in a series of SMS messages for Unicef.

Meera’s story

The mMitra project gave vital help and reassurance to Meera* through pregnancy, premature labour and after her son was born. Her husband felt that the messages were so important in supporting her to look after their son Vihaan* that he has now bought her a separate phone.

Meera knew to go to hospital when she went into premature labour because of the advice she’d been sent. She also knew that her son might be in an incubator so, when she came round after having an emergency caesarean, felt reassured.

She breastfed Vihaan, having read this was important, especially for a small baby. And after her mother-in-law put mustard oil on Vihaan’s cord stump Meera prevented it from becoming infected, taking advice from the mobile messages to wipe off the oil and clean it properly with boiled water so that it healed.

*Names have been changed

Originally posted here

Thrive are finalists in the Social Transformation category of the DigitalAgenda Impact Awards.

You can vote for them in the People’s Choice award here.

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