Mobile phones have been heralded for the immense impact they have had in improving communication or information flows on global, national, and local levels. Their benefit has extended to numerous sectors of the economy including agriculture, banking, and now health. A key area in health care delivery where mHealth has begun to make an impact is the performance of the supply chain. For years, many public health supply chains have been hampered by the inability to generate, synthesize, and act upon logistics data. The inability to perform these critical functions in a timely manner has, in many cases, led to poor or incomplete data being used in the supply chain decision-making process. The use of poor and untimely data has in turn exacerbated supply chain challenges such as stockouts of essential health supplies.
In Tanzania, the USAID | DELIVER PROJECT recently faced a similar challenge. The public health supply chain there needed to get essential health commodities to service delivery points (SDPs) in a timely manner. To help reach that goal, we decided to improve the transmission of logistics data generated from the Integrated Logistics System (ILS), Tanzania’s national logistics system. We chose mobile phone technology as the solution because it would allow us to design and implement a sustainable system for making quality logistics data readily available in real time. To ensure our solution was scalable, we required that the personal phones of staff at health facilities be used as the mode for data transmission. Doing so also helped us avoid the costs associated with training users on new phones.
Having implemented this system, known as the ILSGateway, in four districts, we have begun to see the impact of mHealth on supply chain performance. Previously, it would take weeks or months for decision makers to learn about stock availability at the facility level. It was also impossible to determine reporting rates and who had reported on time. Now, with the mHealth system, that data is instantly available on a user-friendly web dashboard to multiple stakeholders at all levels of the health system. Logistics staff respond to trigger messages that ask for a range of data from stock on hand to ordering status. Logistics managers, through a GIS mapping function included in the ILSGateway, also have the ability to determine how to reposition stock where levels might be above or below maximum or minimum levels.
The ILSGateway has increased the efficiency of the information system in Tanzania from facilities to central medical stores to the central level has facilitated more timely decision making, and has improved product availability at service delivery points. These successes have opened new channels for the use of mobile technologies in supply chain management. The next question we need to answer is how many commodities can be managed through an mHealth-based system vs. a paper system. In any case, it is clear that mHealth can and should play a major role in significantly improving the performance of existing paper-based logistics systems.
Marasi Mwencha is a Supply Chain Technical Advisor at John Snow, Inc. (JSI) in Washington D.C.