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Chipatala cha pa Foni: Texting Gives Expectant Mothers a Head Start

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By Aida Akl/ VOA

You don’t have to speak Chichewa to know what Chipatala cha pa Foni is about, but it helps if you are a pregnant mother or health worker in Malawi.

Chipatala cha pa Foni means health center by phone. Launched by the non-profit VillageReach in 2011, the center connects expectant mothers in Malawi with health workers to receive appropriate care and health services.

Part of the program is a toll-free hotline service called ANC Connect, which “uses the hosted service TextIt to send and receive text messages to/from pregnant women and community health workers,” said Erin Larsen-Cooper, Program Manager of the Health Systems Group at VillageReach in an email interview.

ANC Connect is not a mobile app. “By design,” added Larsen-Cooper, “users don’t need an app on their phone to access [the] service; the service can be accessed from any phone [even basic ones] by registering … via SMS.”

Users simply text an approved keyword to a prescribed code in order to register. ANC Connect then generates appropriate prompts to register the client or set an appointment.

Once in the system, registered users can get reminders and tips about reproductive, maternal and newborn health, information about maternal care and child issues, as well as referral assistance.

“If a client misses an ANC appointment, her community health worker will receive a SMS alert,” said Larsen-Cooper.

The two-way text messaging allows VillageReach to increase the number of pregnant women who receive recommended prenatal care visits and information related to birth planning, including reminders to use maternal health facilities for delivery and follow-up services.

In one case, Elina, a single mother testing HIV positive while pregnant, lived 10 kilometers away from the nearest town and needed information and care. But she did not want to disclose her situation at that point and opted to register with ANC Connect to get the help she needed throughout the term of her pregnancy.

In turn, the service lets community health workers keep track of pertinent information about their patients, such as the date of their last appointment, whether they’ve completed a birth plan, and when and where they delivered their baby.

The pilot for ANC Connect, which started in December 2014, was done in partnership with the Clinton Health Alliance Initiative in rural areas in Malawi’s Balaka and Ntcheu districts, where VillageReach said only about 45% of households have access to a mobile phone.

In that case, Larsen-Cooper said ANC Connect “relies on community health workers to follow-up with women who have missed an appointment” and lets women without phones register through a community health worker who receives notifications of missed appointments on their behalf.

According to Larsen-Cooper, 500 pregnant women enrolled in the pilot program. She said participants experienced improved relations with community health workers as a result of using the service, while health workers were able to visit clients more frequently and follow up with expectant mothers who might not get that kind of care outside the program.

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