25-Year-Old Saves Lives, One Text Message at a Time

Josh Nesbit's groundbreaking mobile technology connects health workers to HIV patients in remote parts of the world.
Community health workers learning about new Medic Mobile technology. (Photo: Medic Mobile)
Jan 24, 2012
Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

Growing up, Josh Nesbit had his mind set on a clear path: first a Stanford education, then med school, and after that, patient care as a doctor in the developing world.

Preparing for his ultimate goal, Josh went to Malawi to volunteer at a busy hospital during his sophomore year at Stanford in 2007. “Typically there were only one or two doctors on shift,” Josh says about the hospital that served around 250,000 people. “The outpatient care was swamped, and patients were walking or ox carting up to 100 miles to get access to the hospital.”

He helped however he could at the hospital, checking in on patients suffering from HIV, malaria or tuberculosis. Early on in his 10-week stay, he met a feverishly motivated community health worker named Dickson. Dickson and the others, Josh says, “had to walk 40 to 100 miles to do something as simple as report someone has a broken leg had run out of TB drugs.”

Josh Nesbit has helped save thousands of lives in 16 countries. (Photo c/o Medic Mobile)

While on one of these trips with Dickson, Josh happened to look down at his phone and noticed he had a signal. “I had a better mobile signal in this rural village in Malawi than I did in Palo Alto,” he says.

When Josh went back to Stanford, he couldn’t stop talking about his trip and his idea to merge mobile technology and healthcare. Soon after, Medic Mobile was born. The nonprofit technology company creates mobile health systems that make it easy for community health workers to communicate with patients, coordinate patient care, and provide diagnostics via SMS.

Right now someone is using a mobile phone to report a new tuberculosis case...These little actions are changing outcomes almost all over the world.

Once the technology was implemented at the hospital in Malawi, Dickson and his fellow health workers were able to double the number of patients they treated. They now save hours of travel time, and the hospital is better equipped to respond to emergencies. Medic Mobile’s technology is currently implemented in 16 countries with a focus on East and West Africa and Southern Asia. “We have about 6,000 community health workers that are using our technology on a day-to-day basis, and they’re serving hundreds of thousands of people each year,” Josh says.

A community health worker using her new mobile technology. (Photo: Alex Harsha, Medic Mobile)

Not only does Medic Mobile work with ongoing crises such as AIDS and malaria, but they also have been instrumental in disaster relief efforts, including the earthquake in Haiti.

When the earthquake struck, Medic Mobile joined forces with the State Department, a number of NGOs, and tech partners to set up an emergency number for people in desperate need of help. “There was no 911 system or really anything like it,” Josh says. “Yet within 24 hours after the earthquake, a lot of the mobile networks were up and running.”

They set up a number victims could text to get help and went from radio station to radio station spreading the word. Within about a day, Josh says, “We recruited 3,000 people from all over the world, mostly of Haitian diaspora, who were translating, categorizing, and mapping every one of those messages.”

In two weeks, 100,000 text messages were processed. Josh says these messages included word of children trapped under a school building and a woman bleeding out while in labor. Because of this technology, many lives were saved.

Josh’s original goal of becoming a doctor may have changed after going to Malawi, but it’s been worth it, he says, because “right now someone is using a mobile phone to report a new tuberculosis case, or to get a notification that they need to come to the clinic to start treatment. These little actions are changing outcomes almost all over the world.”

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