2009-07-16 / Features

Overseas Doctors Who Can't Meet Face To Face Share By Texting

By Karen Blackledge THE (SUNBURY) DAILY ITEM

DANVILLE, Pa. (AP) - A medical student from Danville is one of four co-founders of a new nonprofit organization distributing cell phones to community health workers in developing countries worldwide.

Nadim Mahmud also serves as research director for the charity, named FrontlineSMS:Medic. The phones are the link between clinics and villages sometimes located more than 100 miles away, said Mahmud.

"Everything is text messaged. A lot of developing countries have no access to clinics or are so far away they can only walk to get there,'' Mahmud said. "We have partnered with health workers and have recruited volunteers from villages to walk back and forth between villages to bring patients and medical records to serve as a bridge between the villages and clinics.''

Mahmud is now a secondyear medical student at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., after graduating from Yale University in New Haven, Conn., with bachelor's and master's degrees in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. Mahmud is the son of Zeenat and Faruq Mahmud of Danville, and a 2004 graduate of Danville Area High School, about 50 miles north of Harrisburg.

In February, Mahmud founded FrontlineSMS:Medic with another Stanford medical student who graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and two recent undergraduate students, one from Stanford and the other from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore.

So far, they have sites in Uganda and Malawi in Africa. They have provided cell phones to volunteers, who instead of walking more than 100 miles to carry a stack of medical records, can communicate via text messages.

"The pilot sites have yielded dramatic cost savings for the clinics, increased patient treatment capacity and hundreds of hours of community health workers time has been saved,'' he said.

His nonprofit has also provided software that serves as a two-way hub to receive text messages. An example is someone injured in a village 40 miles away from a clinic and who cannot walk to a clinic. A health worker texts the clinic that the patient cannot walk and needs emergency help. The message is automatically forwarded to a nurse who travels on a motor bike with medical supplies to the patient, he said.

Mahmud plans to travel this summer to set up more sites in Bangladesh. One of the other founders will travel through parts of Africa this summer.

The founders take a salary but, in the case of the partner traveling in Africa, only enough for airfare. "We do not intend to take salaries beyond what we need to sustain ourselves during our work,'' Mahmud said.

Their nonprofit organization recently received $50,000 in grants from the Clinton Global Initiative, Microsoft and others to develop software innovations for their clinic partners and to continue to develop new sites.

The foundation recently launched a cell phone donation campaign, at hopephones.org, to convert old cell phones into ones that can be used.

The cell phone campaign is aimed at collecting the hundreds of thousands of cell phones thrown away or replaced monthly in the U.S.

"People can visit the Web site, click on how many phones they can donate, print a shipping label and we will pay the shipping and send the phones to our partner The Wireless Source that collects the phones, refurbishes and resells them,'' Mahmud said. "For every phone we donate, we get a monetary credit and for every phone they resell, we get a portion or the profit. We take that money and buy cell phones for our sites.''

Mahmud said he hasn't decided upon a medical specialty yet, but is interested in public health and infectious disease and health policy.

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