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Icons of Progress

Medicine On Demand

IBM100 Medicine On-Demand iconic mark

In 2009, IBM helped lead a humanitarian effort in a remote part of Africa that used everyday technology to get supplies of medicine to where they were needed the most. The project served as an example of how simple, inexpensive technologies used in innovative ways can improve the medicine supply chain and help save lives.

Malaria is a deadly disease that each year infects almost 250 million people and kills approximately 800,000 each year in sub-Saharan Africa. The mosquito-borne disease is treatable and preventable, and the tools to fight it are available. But medicines do not always reach the patients who need them, particularly in remote areas. In Tanzania, for example, 93 percent of its mainland population is at risk for malaria infection—especially pregnant women and young children.

In 2008, a team of international students from IBM’s internship program Extreme Blue worked with the pharmaceutical company Novartis on researching and refining proposed solutions to the long-standing problem of medicine stock-outs in Africa. Given that cell phone service was becoming common, even in remote areas of the continent, the final simple solution for tracking and managing supplies of anti-malarial drugs used a combination of mobile phones, SMS technologies and intuitive websites.

And then, after visits to clinics, hospitals and dispensaries across Tanzania in 2009, members of IBM, Novartis, the mobile phone carrier Vodafone and the Roll Back Malaria Partnership launched a five-month pilot called “SMS for Life” that used simple text messaging and cloud computing to help dispensaries avoid running out of vital stock. The pilot covered 226 villages in different geographic locations across Tanzania. The international team used the cloud-based collaboration and social business tools from IBM ® LotusLive™ to manage the project and share information among multiple organizations.

The SMS for Life system would send weekly automated messages to staff at participating healthcare facilities, prompting them to check their stock of medicines and reply with a text message that included detailed stock levels. The messages were collected and stored centrally on a website that provided the district medical officers and other users with information about stock levels. This information helped them to redistribute essential medicines to where they were most needed, as well as set up emergency deliveries if necessary.

The results were immediate. During the first few weeks of the pilot, the number of health facilities that had run out of medicine in one district alone was reduced by more than 75 percent.

A final report submitted to the Tanzanian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare in April 2010 showed that at the start of the pilot project, 25 percent of all health facilities did not have any of the five most effective anti-malarial combination medicines in stock; but by the end, 95 percent had at least one dosage form in stock. In addition, 888,000 people in the three pilot districts had access to all malaria treatments at the close of the pilot, versus 264,000 people at the start. Overall, the project helped reduce the chances that health facilities had run out of vital malaria treatments by 300 percent.

“The outcome has been hundreds of lives saved,” said Tanzanian Minister of Health and Social Welfare Professor David Mwakyusa.

The success of SMS for Life prompted Tanzanian authorities to begin implementing similar programs in other areas ravaged by malaria. And it was one of several ways IBM was using existing technologies to respond to medicine-related challenges in the supply chain.


Selected team members who contributed to this Icon of Progress:

  • Peter Ward SMS for Life Project Manager, IBM Client Technical Advisor Program Manager for Northeast Europe