DRC: Increasing Health Center Referrals in Mwene Ditu with Mobile Phones

DRC: Increasing Health Center Referrals in Mwene Ditu with Mobile Phones

A group of young men in Mwene Ditu discuss using a cell phone to access health information. {Photo credit: Overseas Strategic Consulting, Ltd.}Photo credit: Overseas Strategic Consulting, Ltd.

Mobile phones are being used increasingly throughout Africa to improve health. The USAID-funded Democratic Republic of Congo-Integrated Health Project (DRC-IHP) is using mobile phone technology to increase the number of people referred to health centers in the project’s 80 targeted health zones. In Mwene Ditu, project staff observed that low numbers of referrals to health centers would be improved by increasing communication—within the community, between the community and health service providers, and among provincial health officials.

In July 2012, DRC-IHP piloted the use of closed user groups (CUGs) to address the low rate of referrals by providing free cell phone service for a select number of dedicated users. CUGs bring together a network of community leaders and health service providers. All community residents are able to access health information by reaching out to any CUG member by phone or in person, who in turns calls the CUG member who is best placed to answer the question. In Mwene Ditu, DRC-IHP provided seven mobile phones to the Wikong health zone and instructed selected community leaders and health providers on how to communicate using the CUG system.

The CUG strategy produced rapid and impressive results. Health referrals proliferated within the Wikong health zone, as the members of the group placed more than 100 calls within the first ten weeks of the pilot. Referrals to health centers increased to unprecedented levels. Community members identified 119 cases of illness, requests for family planning services, and child immunizations and referred all of them to health centers. Prior to the pilot, no referrals had been reported.

To date, the introduction of CUGs in Mwene Ditu has increased access to information, strengthened the health center referral system, and facilitated greater interaction between community members and health providers. DRC-IHP aims to scale-up its use of mobile phone-based communications initiatives such as CUGs as well as awareness-raising through SMS messages in order to continue supporting improved community health.

Led by Management Sciences for Health with partners the International Rescue Committee and Overseas Strategic Consulting, DRC-IHP is working to improve the basic health conditions of the Congolese people in 80 health zones in four provinces.

Jean-Baptiste Mputu is the behavior change communications technical advisor on the DRC-IHP project, based in Kinshasa. Andrea Spakauskas is a manager on the DRC-IHP project at Overseas Strategic Consulting, Ltd.