Sing District in the North West corner of Laos is the very unlikely scene of a technological revolution. An office in Nakham village is full of community workers, health volunteers and local Village Chiefs. One-by-one each participant introduces themselves and their smartphones, and are then each given an SD card. We are witnessing an innovative new UNICEF pilot programme take its first steps in Laos.
The members of this small Lao community sitting in their local Village Chief’s office are at the very forefront of technological driven social change in South East Asia. After a morning of tuition and demonstrations on how the SD cards should be used, the room suddenly erupts into a flurry of sounds as the newly activated SD cards spring to life.
The cards contain materials about breastfeeding (including a drama, a TV Spot and a documentary), a song about the benefits of immunization, a deworming animation, a video advocating an end to violence against children and 24 episodes of the UNICEF-backed ‘My Village’ animation. Suddenly, these health workers have a host of informative and engaging materials in their pockets – materials which can be delivered to some of the remotest communities in Asia.
Better knowledge, better health
The trial offers an exciting opportunity to support a high profile ICT health and development project to improve the (near) real-time monitoring of health outreach services and provide knowledge to support behaviour change.
One of the people responsible for overseeing the project is Mr Visith Khamlusa, Deputy Director of the Lao Centre of Information and Education for Health. “Our main task is responding to the need for health promotion in the districts. Our role is to provide health information to the people so they know how to promote their own health.”
Mr Ati (29) from nearby Phabatnoy village also thinks this is a good way for people to learn information about their own health.
“This would definitely help access,” he says. “I haven’t given very much thought about my own health but will look at it more now. People will be interested. Video is better than posters or pages; video is better for understanding.”
A team of over 200 village chiefs and volunteers from 102 outreach villages will spread the new technological revolution in their communities, supported and trained by staff from seven health centres and district health workers.
Sing District in Luang Namtha Province, lying in the infamous Golden Triangle region where the borders of Myanmar, China and Thailand converge, is what might reasonably be termed a low resource setting. Yet it is here, like other similar places around the world, that the impact new technology can have is at its greatest.
“This will help improve health knowledge in our community. It makes all of our jobs easier. We have had to speak so much on the issues in the past. We’ve used posters or had to communicate ourselves,” says Ms Phanthong (34), a local Health Volunteer. “These videos will help reduce our workload so we don’t have to speak so much.”
“The information villagers received in the past was not enough,” says Ms Nong Thamavong (32), a Lao Women’s Union representative from a nearby village. “We’ve received some information from posters, but not very much. This will help provide us with more in depth knowledge. The videos will help everyone understand more and better.”
As the training session begins, everyone breaks into groups. Each group has a facilitator. The new tech-pioneers of health outreach span a broad range of ages and social backgrounds – mothers with babies, older men and younger boys.
All mingle together with the common goal to disseminate this new, affordable and accessible means of personal health information that will drive communication for positive behavioural change for families in one of the poorest regions of Lao PDR.
Interactive Voice Response
Providing dynamic and informative health related content via an SD card is just one aspect of the trial however. Interactive Voice Response (IVR) is another important component to help improve monitoring of outreach services, in real time.
Short phone calls are made by both the village chief and health centre staff to a toll-free number. An automated, voice-guided system then asks them to report on the numbers of children who were planned to be immunized and those who were in a particular village on a particular date. It’s easy for users to answer verbally and the system efficiently collects critical data that is used to ensure the quality of health services.
“It makes tracking data on frequency and quality of health outreach visits easier and timely,” explains Ms. Lamphai, Provincial Immunization Programme Manager. “With a short phone call we capture exactly who we are reaching, especially those children living in underserved and hard to reach areas.”
The technology also ensures greater levels of accuracy through a more practical recording system – particularly helpful in remote villages. “Everything is communicated in numbers: it’s more efficient, more accurate and practical for the ethnic communities which include some people who are illiterate,” continues Ms Lamphai. “Having the data available online is very helpful.”
The new landscape of mobile technology for health has the potential to unleash an innovative and immersive environment for health information, awareness and outreach.
Barry Bracken is a communication officer at UNICEF Laos.