mHealth: using mobile phones to fight disease

mHealth, which stands for ‘mobile health’, involves using mobile phones to collect data and provide training during health projects.

A close-up of a doctor holding a mobile phone.

Sightsavers is pioneering new ways to use mobile phone technology as part of our sight-saving programmes.

Mobile phones have the power to improve our work in two ways. One is through data collection: increasing the quality, speed and access to important field data. The second is through behaviour change: with mobile phones more present than ever, they have become a new channel to communicate and interact.


Eye health workers in Ethiopia gather data using mobile phone.

How mHealth is saving sight

A spoon is used to place two tablets into a child's hand.

Monitoring mass drug administration

Many of our neglected tropical disease programmes use mass drug administration (MDA), in which entire populations are treated with medication. These MDAs take place within local communities, making it historically difficult to monitor treatment and distribution.

Our new MDA monitoring process and platform, which uses mobile phones to collect data throughout the MDA, is now being used in Cameroon, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. This offers much greater visibility: if an area is behind target, for example, we can investigate any issues and attempt to solve them as soon as possible, while the campaign is still under way. This has significantly improved the quality and timeliness of our data, as well as our ability to supervise the activities, and means far fewer drugs are wasted.

An eye health worker wearing blue scrubs holds an eye patch over a woman's eye as she lies down following trachoma surgery.

TT tracker

Operations for advanced trachoma (known as trachomatous trichiasis, or TT) are often carried out in remote settings that lack resources, which means caring for patients continuously and reporting the results of surgery can be challenging. The TT tracker helps surgeons, assistants and supervisors to collect and analyse information about surgery and performance, and to determine when and where follow-up appointments are needed. Data is collected using smartphones, with supervisors given reports online and via email.

Under the Accelerate programme, TT Tracker is being rolled out in Nigeria, Guinea and Benin, with Senegal and Zimbabwe set to be added later in the year. In 2019, we will also configure the TT Tracker for use in our child cataract programmes, with plans to pilot this approach in Nigeria.

An eye health worker holds a mobile phone to record data, as a boy in the background looks on.

Survey data collection

Sightsavers has adopted one centralised system to manage mobile survey data collection and data visualisation across our programmes. This cross-cutting approach includes surveys undertaken in our eye health, NTD and research activities. We have more than 50 surveys planned over the next 18 months.

An eye health worker in Ethiopia examines a child's eyes.

Global Trachoma Mapping Project

Our most successful mHealth project to date has been the Global Trachoma Mapping Project (GTMP), the largest infectious disease survey ever undertaken. Partnering with 53 organisations, Sightsavers led a coalition to collect and transmit data on 2.6 million people in 29 countries using smartphones. That project came to an end in early 2016,

An eye care worker holding a notepad with a phone resting on top.

Tropical Data

Created with partners including the World Health Organization, Tropical Data is a mobile-based data-collection initiative that uses the same approach and technology as the Global Trachoma Mapping Project. Tropical Data helps countries carry out surveys as they work towards eliminating trachoma. In total, 300 surveys in 23 countries have already taken place, and soon the platform will be set up for other neglected tropical diseases.

A close-up of flies in a test tube.

Onchocerciasis Elimination Mapping (OEM) project

Using the many lessons learned from GTMP and Tropical Data, we’re working with partners in Ghana and Nigeria to devise new ways to collect valuable data about river blindness (also known as onchocerciasis). The OEM project will focus on carrying out the project in certain districts in Mozambique in 2019, in close coordination with WHO and WHO/ESPEN, the Task Force for Global Health, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and many other partners.

A group of Kenyan health volunteers smile and hold up their mobile phones.

Leap mobile learning platform

As an example of how we’re using mHealth for areas other than data collection, in Kenya we’ve incorporated TT case finder and trachoma SAFE strategy training into our partner AMREF’s LEAP mHealth platform, a mobile learning package that helps community health volunteers learn at home. The platform provides continuous training and support, with content, quizzes, chat rooms and interaction with trainers all delivered via SMS, with no smartphones needed.

A school student washes her hands using water from a large barrel.

Using data to encourage behaviour change

In Zambia, Sightsavers is working with Akros, which already uses mobile phones to collect data about water and sanitation. We are now gathering data linked to trachoma elimination, and Akros is feeding information back to the communities: chiefs have tablets showing their area’s water cleanliness, and community volunteers are sent SMS updates about medication distribution and other activities.

Sayon being examined by a Sightsavers health worker in Mali.

Data collection with the Malian Ministry of Health

Since 2014, surgeons have been using simple mobile phones to collect data about operations for advanced trachoma. This not only helps us to get accurate data more quickly, but saves time and petrol costs: it ensures we don’t have to collect paperwork from each location where surgery takes place. The platform is built by the Mali Ministry of Health, which takes ownership of the data. We’re working with the ministry to expand it to other eye health services, such as cataract operations.

Two patients with mobility impairments undergo screening for eye health conditions

Inclusive eye health

We define inclusive eye health as services that are sustainable, accessible and planned with gender and disability considerations in mind. In 2018 we began collecting patient data for eye health programmes in Mozambique, Pakistan and Bangladesh using mobile devices. Each patient surveyed will have an eye health assessment, and their disability status determined using the Washington Group short set of questions. This will be used as comparative data to measure the success of the project.

Mobile surgeon Boubacar Fomba checks his mobile phone.

mHealth in action

Sightsavers’ mobile surgeon Boubacar Fomba travels by motorbike to the most remote regions in Mali to perform trichiasis surgery in the field and collect data about trachoma via mobile phone.

Read his story

More about mHealth

An eye health worker looks at his mobile phone.
Sightsavers blog

A brave new world of data

The Global Trachoma Mapping Project showed that public health can benefit from technology and standardisation to cut costs and respond to local needs.

Sarah Bartlett, February 2016
A close-up of mobile surgeon Boubacar Fomba checking his mobile phone.

Combatting trachoma with a mobile phone

Mobile phones are being used to help eliminate blinding trachoma in Mali. Take a look at our mHealth project in action.

August 2014
Sightsavers blog

The road to elimination: three stories from Mali

Last March, five regions in Mali were given ground-breaking news that would change the future of their communities.

Sightsavers, August 2014