Taiwan shares its health care know-how
Weekday mornings in Mthatha, a community on South Africa’s Eastern Cape, 40 health care workers embark on a journey past fields and rugged cliffs. Their goal: to reach the small painted homes that sparsely dot the landscape.
Johnson Huang ( ), head of a Taiwanese team that develops mobile applications for the continent, said that finding the homes can be tough because Mthatha has no road signs.
“For a community health worker going into a fresh assignment, it can be hard simply to locate the patients,” said Huang, who leads the research and development of a new portable solution.
“The notation for a specific home might be something like this, ‘Go down along this road and then you’ll see a tree. Turn right at the tree and you’ll see a little village, and in this village there is one house that looks like that,’” he said.
The Community Health Care App
Like many residents in remote parts of the world, the people of Mthatha rarely visit medical clinics. Instead, they rely on traveling healthcare workers for basic services and referrals to hospitals when their condition is serious.
In a pilot study that runs to October, 20 of the 40 healthcare workers are going to work in the mornings with a mobile app developed by Huang’s team at Taiwan’s Bjorgaas Foundation (
). Provisionally named CHC (Community Healthcare), the app is still in beta testing, though most of its features are complete.
The app solves the problem of lost healthcare workers by providing steady and dependable GPS navigation to every patient’s location.
But the real beauty is that the app is connected to a cloud database, which allows healthcare workers to do much more than track down patient homes.
For one, CHC lets workers download patient forms on their smartphone, sparing them from carrying heavy boxes and the problems of not having correct forms on hand.
Workers can also collect data and automatically submit it to the cloud, a convenience that cuts down on human error when handling paper records.
“For example, healthcare workers have a blood pressure monitor and thermometer. Via Bluetooth, the readings are wired directly to the phone and to
the cloud database,” he said.
A South African National Health Bank
Huang said that over time, the cloud storage could become something similar to Taiwan’s national health insurance database: a common repository of patient information from workers and hospital staff all over the country.
In South Africa, patient records are still mainly paper-based, not shared between hospitals and prone to going missing.
If an AIDS patient goes into a hospital he has not visited before, the doctor has no way of looking up his patient history. Even if the patient visits a familiar hospital, his record may be incomplete, and his physician may make mistakes.
Maybe the medicine a doctor prescribes to you depends on whether you received medication in a certain month after your diagnosis. You may have built up an immunity that reduces drug efficacy,” Huang said.
With the CHC solution, a doctor can scan the patient’s fingerprint and receive a comprehensive picture of the patient’s medical history.
“What I mean is that information and technology systems can help medical service providers provide long-term care. In countries where this medical information is not available, the quality of healthcare tends to be poor,” he said.
Finding His Way
Huang, a native of Pingtung County, is in his early 30s but looks younger. With his thick arms and wide chest, he is built like a top-flight athlete, but when he speaks he has the air of a professor.
“Taiwan happens to have experience in tech solutions for medical care,” he said.
“Since the national health insurance program was formed in 1995, hospitals have been required to submit their patient data electronically and firms have worked with them and the state to create an electronic solution that is now quite mature.”
As a boy in Southern Taiwan, Huang had wanted to become a doctor, but was diagnosed with a form of attention deficit disorder that caused his hands to tremble. Told he would be unable to use a scalpel, he took a different path and is now chief information officer for Bjorgaas, a social welfare non-profit that works overseas.
Mobile health solutions are particularly suited for underdeveloped countries due to the paradox that they often have excellent technology infrastructure, he said.
“South Africa’s medical information service system is not so complete. You could say that they do not have one,” Huang said.
“But the internet coverage is roughly 76 percent. And it’s 3G.”
By year’s end, Huang and his team will look at the test run’s data quality and decide where to take the app from there.
“We may tweak the app, or if we find it is successful, we can replicate the study elsewhere. Maybe someday we can use it in Southeast Asia - any countries that have an interest in this solution,” he said.
“The idea with CHC is to package some of Taiwan’s strengths and offer them to the world.”
A view of the Mthatha, South Africa, where residents rely on traveling workers for basic health services.