Technology for the Greater Good

These Computerworld Honors laureates benefit society by using low-tech gadgets for high impact.

Computerworld Honors medal

A mother in Tanzania walks for three days with a sick child on her hip, only to arrive at a rural clinic whose inventory of malaria medicine is depleted.

It's a matter of life and death for the mother and child. But from a business standpoint, it's a straightforward supply chain issue. Antimalarial medicines -- with a 96% cure rate -- are available. Yet far-flung clinics have a hard time keeping them in stock. Having adequate supplies when and where they are needed is critical, because the medication isn't fully effective unless patients take it within 24 hours of contracting malaria.

Novartis -- a company whose innovations include micro-chipped pills that can track whether patients take their medication on schedule -- resolved the crisis in Tanzania by relying on, of all things, SMS text messaging.

Similarly, OhioHealth in Dublin, Ohio, is using text messaging to deliver health and wellness information to patients subscribing to its OH Mobile app. The app can alert obstetric patients of upcoming tests and procedures or remind pre-operative patients to refrain from eating and drinking after midnight the day before their surgery.

"A very important component of patient care delivery is dependent on patient engagement. That idea and the fact that the vast majority of patients had smartphones gave us the idea for the app," says Dr. Mrunal Shah, vice president of physician IT services at OhioHealth. "We wanted something easily deployable and easily updatable," he notes. The result: "Patients are leaving wonderful feedback. They're just hungry for more information, which is a fantastic problem to have," says Shah.

Novartis and OhioHealth are among dozens of 2012 Computerworld Honors laureates that are leveraging low-cost, consumer-oriented technologies to create and deploy systems and applications designed to greatly benefit society, especially in the areas of education and healthcare.

The Computerworld Honors program, now in its 24th year, recognizes organizations that create and use IT to promote and advance public welfare. Award winners will gather at an event in Washington on June 4 to celebrate their achievements.

Read more about all 200 Computerworld Honors Laureates for 2012.

Necessity Drives Innovation

Usability and affordability are the heart and soul of these innovations, many of which are being deployed in poverty-stricken and remote areas of developing nations where life's basic necessities -- much less state-of-the-art IT and ubiquitous Internet access -- are not readily available.

But what is available is SMS, which in remote areas performs more efficiently than costlier, more complex options, according to Rob James, CIO at Novartis. Working with IBM and Vodaphone, Novartis IT came up with a simple idea: Have each remote clinic text four numbers, representing the inventory levels of four different medicines, to distribution facilities in major cities that ship supplies. The application is known as SMS for Life.

"The idea was to take that information centrally and look at inventory levels overall so we could do a better job of forecasting stock-outs," says James.

Initial results of a pilot test at 20 sites across Tanzania were daunting: More than 25% of remote facilities were totally out of stock on all medications.

"The good news is that once we had that data, we could reduce stock-outs to less than 1% in a very short time," James says. "That led to a rollout across Tanzania, then through Kenya, and we're now in the planning stages for Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo," he adds. Over the past decade, Novartis has provided more than 500 million malaria treatments for adults and children.

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