5 Amazing ways smartphones can make a difference

From mapping to diagnostics, smartphones have revolutionised the way we work

25 Jan 18

For better or worse, smartphones have changed the world in a way few gadgets have before.

For our teams overseas, the impact has been overwhelmingly positive. Not only do smartphones help us stay better connected to our friends and families back home, they are revolutionising the ways in which we help people in need.

Here are just five innovative ways in which smartphones have changed how we reach, diagnose, care for and treat our patients.  

1. Putting families on the map

In a humanitarian crisis, to deliver food, shelter, medical care and other services, you need to know where to find those most in need.

And, although it may be hard to believe, millions of people around the world are not represented on any accessible map. 

For humanitarian responders, this means a vital lack of information to make quick and valuable decisions for relief efforts.

Our friends at the Missing Maps project have come up with a solution to the problem: MapSwipe, an app that gives you the ability to help map vulnerable communities across the world.

Identifying satellite imagery that contains information such as houses and roads, your job is to identify the right images for volunteer mappers to map.

“Now, with MapSwipe, we can give vaccination campaign coordinators a super-fast snapshot of where the population clusters are, helping them to send their teams to the locations where they are most needed to achieve maximum vaccination coverage,” says Pete Masters, MSF’s Innovation Manager.


2. Diagnosing deadly diseases

Our teams often work in places with limited resources. Without complex, expensive equipment such as CT scanners, some diseases – like cerebral malaria and meningitis – are hard to distinguish from each other.

One way of differentiating these diseases is to look at a patient’s retina – the thin layer of tissue at the back of the eye that carries information about the body and its health.

The portable eye examination kit in action

But only ophthalmologists know how to use equipment like ophthalmoscopes – the kit needed to see this part of the eye. That is, until an organisation called PEEK (portable eye examination kit) came along.

“We knew we needed better diagnostics at the bedside – a simple tool that would help us identify malarial retinopathy,” says Estrella Lasry, MSF tropical medicines advisor.

“When one of our paediatricians heard about PEEK, we realised that this could be just what we were looking for.”

Using a cheap piece of equipment that slips on to any smartphone camera, MSF doctors – with a bit of training – can now see close-up images of a patient’s retina to look for tell-tale signs of cerebral malaria, like haemorrhages or abnormal blood vessels.


3. Monitoring malnutrition

Collecting detailed information about people’s health needs in emergency situations is a perennial problem for humanitarian organisations.

But MSF teams have started using a new health surveillance programmes that collect data in a fast and accurate way, that can be shared in real time and acted on immediately.

Using smartphones in northeast Nigeria, our teams go house to house to collect data about children’s nutrition.

Before, staff had to use clipboards and paper spreadsheets, and collate the data by hand at the end of the day. Now, thanks to the new technology, the team at headquarters have access to live data to monitor malnutrition rates in real time.

With the help of maps developed by the Missing Maps project, our teams can send food to areas with high malnutrition rates quicker than ever before. 

And in the Middle East, our teams are using a similar technology to carry out broader health surveillance among refugees.

“This means we can make sure people receive the right type of assistance – whether it’s medical care, food, clean drinking water or the materials to build a weatherproof shelter,” says MSF doctor Ghassan Aziz.

4. Microscopic photography

Imagine you’re an MSF doctor. You’re working in a basic hospital in a remote location and a patient arrives with a dangerously high fever.

Over the next few days, you try all the most likely treatment options, but nothing seems to work. Their lab tests show results that no one at the hospital has seen before. What do you do?

Until recently, biomedical scientists in MSF projects would have had to pick up a phone and describe the images seen through microscopes to colleagues overseas or share blurry smartphone images. Both inaccurate methods of achieving a diagnosis.

Trialling various adaptors to attach a smartphone camera to microscopes, MSF's Innovation Team found the perfect solution.

Now, thanks to this adaptor, high-quality photomicrographs – photos of specimen slides as seen through a microscope – can be uploaded to a ‘telemedicine’ platform for MSF staff to share with consultants in other parts of the world to give our patients the best possible outcomes.

5. Powering MSF

Thanks to smartphones, it’s now easier than ever to donate to MSF.

Worldwide, ninety percent of our donations come from individuals. Technology makes donating faster and more efficient whilst allowing us to innovate to better reach our patients and provide a greater standard of care.

Thanks to developments in payment systems we can now process your donation in an instant, helping us to prepare for the next major emergency.