Amader Daktar: Improving Rural Health Care via Telemedicine

mHealth-telemedicine

There is one doctor per 5,000 people in Bangladesh, but doctors are not evenly distributed within the population, which means that for the majority of rural Bangladeshi, doctors are a rarity. So how can rural people have access to quality medical care?

Doctor in a Tab

Enter mPower Social Enterprises and their Amader Daktar “doctor in a tab” solution that aims to improve rural health care and reduce the number of people whose illnesses are aggravated by a lack of, or delay in, proper diagnosis and treatment. The service currently has 200 locations in Bangladesh and has served over 1,200 clients to date.

Amader Daktar is a tablet PCs and a custom-made app that allows rural healthcare practitioners to act as a telemedicine assistant. The tablet allows an rural medical professional to register patients and pass on vital medical information over mobile internet, which can then be viewed on a web portal by a remote doctor.

The doctor can then initiate a video call to talk to the frontline healthcare worker and the patient sitting in any village bazaar (with access to mobile internet). In the best case scenario, the doctor can then create and send a prescription over the internet to the healthcare worker who can then print it out at his end and hand it over to the patient.

In cases where remote consultations are insufficient, the doctor can advise the patient on the next course of action and recommend nearby facilities that can provide the necessary services.

Expansion into Myanmar

mPower Social Enterprises recently won the $10,000 USAID Mobiles for Development Award and will  expand its Amader Daktar service into Myanmar in partnership with mobile network operator, Telenor, in order to reach rural populations where health care services are difficult to access.

Respect Myanmar Diversity: Use Unicode Fonts

unicode-myanmar

Burmese is the dominant language of Myanmar, but its had a long and winding journey in the digital realm, and now there is a tension between two competing systems to represent it online.

Unlike Latin script or pictograph scripts like Chinese, Burmese doesn’t use spaces between words and generally doesn’t fit into nice, tidy blocks that are easy for computers to render on a screen.

Almost all languages have fonts that adhere to the Unicode standard for the consistent encoding, representation and handling of text. In Myanmar the development of Unicode compliance had a very slow start, and until recently, there wasn’t a strong Unicode standard.

To help Myanmar enter the digital age, a group of individuals produced the Zawgyi font to represent Burmese script. Most of the tech elite learned to type using Zawgyi, and like the American Qwerty system, the network effects – from keyboards to typing classes – has made Zawgyi the most widely used font. However, its popularity doesn’t mean Zawgyi is the best font to use.

Technologically, Zawgyi is a nightmare for backend software development, as it requires extensive customization to present the font correctly. The font itself also needs to be installed on computers or mobile phones, which can be a technical hurtle for novice users.

But culturally, there is an even greater imperative to use Unicode instead of Zawgyi. Zawgyi is useless for typing other ethnic Myanmar languages that use Burmese script, like Sanksrit, Shan, and Mon. Myanmar already has a rocky history (past and present) with ethnic minorities, and we should not use any digital tool that excludes them or presents a barrier to their digital voice.

Unicode fonts support 11 languages that use the Myanmar script, including Burmese, Pali, Sanskrit, Mon, Shan, Kayah, Rumai Palaung, and four Karen languages. Unicode is now standard on Android devices, which are and will be the most popular way to get online in Myanmar, and over 30% of Myanmar government websites use Unicode.

So it is time for all of us to use Unicode fonts to communicate in Myanmar, so we can truly communicate with everyone.

Myanmar Will Be the First Smartphone Only Country

Today, Myanmar has the same mobile phone usage as North Korea, Eritrea, and Cuba – less than 10% – with only the urban elite owning smartphones, and mobile networks limited in scope and functionality. Yet technology restrictions are ending, and three mobile operators are racing to roll out services to 60 million across the country.

Ooredoo aims to have 3G coverage for 50% of the population by year’s end, with Telenor and Myanmar Post and Telecom with their own ambitious targets. By the end of 2015, most of Myanmar’s population will live within range of a 3G or better mobile network system.

The people of Myanmar will not be connecting to this network with basic or feature phones for three reasons:

1. Smartphones are cheapWhile new iPhones are still several hundred dollars, there is an explosion of cheap Android handsets available in Myanmar already. $50USD can buy a Karbonn Smart A50S, Spice Smart Flo Edge from India or one of many no-name Chinese-made phones. And that’s today.

With the $25 Firefox phone coming out soon, we’ll see even cheaper, full-featured smartphones flooding the low-end market. By the end of 2015, expect smartphone prices even in developed markets dropping to sub-$100 prices.

2. Burmese are savvy

Mobile phones are also more than just a communications device; they are an aspirational status symbol. And Myanmar is not some remote backwater. Wedged between India and Thailand, with trade and cultural links to both, Burmese are quick to pick up innovations and aspire to join the ranks of Southeast Asia’s elite countries. They are not going to be satisfied with feature phones. Only smartphones will matter.

In fact, looking around Yangon today, I haven’t seen a single feature phone. Even the bus drivers and market sellers have smartphones of some type. They may be used or cheap Chinese knock-offs, but they are not basic phones. Offical surveys say that Android smartphones are 95% of the Burmese market already.

3. Services will be smart

Talking with Ooredoo and Telenor, they are focused purely on smartphone applications for their networks, as is the nascent technology start-up sector. None are looking at feature phone applications nor are they considering SMS text messages or even USSD as their communication system.

Even the international NGOs are moving quickly to develop smartphone applications for their constituencies. And once mobile money becomes widespread, they will even move “cash” payments from physical to virtual currencies.

What does this mean for you? First, adjust your perception of what a developing country looks like. The 60 million people of Myanmar are rushing into the future, practically overnight, and they will have the same technology in their hands as you do.

Next, realize that there will be big money to be made in multiple little niches. With almost 60 million people coming online, there will be massive opportunity to satisfy consumer and business needs – both obvious ones we are familiar with in other countries, and those unique to Myanmar.

Finally, what are you waiting for? The people of Myanmar are not waiting for you.