According to Dr. Patricia Mechael, executive director of the mHealth Alliance, in developing countries the average doctor-to-patient ratio is one doctor to every 250,000 patients. Yet these same countries account for 80% of mobile subscriptions worldwide. It’s no surprise, then, that mobile health technology has substantial potential to improve access to healthcare in the developing world.
The core Peek team consists of Dr. Andrew Bastawrous and Stewart Jordan at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Dr. Mario Giardini at the University of Strathclyde, and Dr. Iain Livingstone at the Glasgow Centre for Ophthalmic Research. Together they share a vision of extending access to quality eye care throughout the world.
According to Dr. Bastawrous there are 39 million sufferers of blindness around the world. 80% are from low-income countries, and the majority are blind from diseases that are either curable or preventable. Dr. Bastawrous has been harnessing the power of mobile technology to deliver eye care in an innovative new way to these individuals.
Peek is a smartphone app aimed at community healthcare workers which allows them to deliver eye care everywhere. The app is able to scan the eye to check for diseases as well as other problems. It works by looking at visual acuity, visual field, colour vision and contrast sensitivity allowing Peek to diagnose blindness, visual impairment, cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and other retinal and optic nerve diseases and crucial indicators of brain tumour and haemorrhage.
The app allows individuals with minimal training to conduct a comprehensive examination. By using a smartphone it replaces bulky traditional equipment which is expensive, fragile and often requires a continuous power source.
Dr. Bastawrous and his team are currently running multiple trials in Kenya within communities and schools. To ensure that everyone understands the benefits of the new technology, everything is being shared in simple, non-technical language.
Once the technology discovers that someone has low vision, the next step is to find out why – and this requires access to the inside of the eye. Traditionally, this would require expensive equipment to examine the retina, but Dr. Bastawrous and his team have developed 3D-printed, low-cost hardware that comes in at less than five dollars to produce which can then be clipped onto a smartphone, making it possible to get high quality views of the back of the eye.
This new hardware has reduced the cost of providing essential eye healthcare from over $125,000 to just $500. Instead of requiring a team of 15 trained personnel with expensive equipment, the examination can now be carried out by a single healthcare professional with a smartphone, on a bike. The issue of power supply is overcome by harnessing the power of solar. The healthcare workers travel with a solar-powered rucksack, which keeps the phone charged and backed up. This gives them the ability to go to the patient rather than waiting for the patient to come to them, which often never happens.
When examinations are carried out the results are archived. They can also be geo-tagged with the GPS location of the patient, allowing traveling eye care professionals to follow up with patients as necessary. Hospital directors can also search the database to locate individuals who need further treatment as well as send out SMS messages to arrange treatment:
“Peek will be sending a vehicle to collect you for eye treatment on Friday 20th June. Reply to confirm attendance.”
Now, many patients are just a text message away from regaining their sight after years of blindness.
Peek Vision is currently conducting extensive tests before making the system more widely available. There are currently patients in over a hundred locations across Nakuru County in Kenya participating in Peek Vision’s trials. As part of the field testing phase, patients are undergoing tests with both professional equipment in hospitals and community health workers using the Peek app. This way, results can be compared to ensure that Peek’s diagnosis is both accurate and effective. Similar tests are being carried out in Scotland through clinics associated with one of their partners from the Glasgow Centre for Ophthalmic Research work.
–Lexi Brown, Mindshare, UK
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in National Geographic as part of the Digital Diversity series. It is being republished with the written permission of Ken Banks.
Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net, FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange. He shares exciting stories in Digital Diversity about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can follow him on Twitter @kiwanja