Mobile Technology Can Equip Health Workers for Ebola Challenges Ahead

Two new mobile learning courses developed by IntraHealth International offer specialized guidance on care and prevention for health workers in Ebola-affected areas, delivered through SMS text messages or through interactive voice response on simple mobile phones.

As of today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1,350 people have died of Ebola virus since March in West Africa. Another 2,473 are infected.

Health workers on the front lines of the Ebola response need not only equipment and supplies, but also targeted, high-quality, up-to-date information. Training on how to use new tools, care for clients, and protect themselves from infection are vital.

The CDC and the World Health Organization have issued continuously updated guidelines for health workers in managing Ebola cases and protecting themselves. But the challenge lies in delivering the information quickly and efficiently to the health workers who need it most. Many are working in hard-to-reach areas with no access to the Internet or other information resources.

Mobile technology—a common tool for health workers in West Africa—could be the key. IntraHealth’s new mLearning courses are designed to use that technology to reach health workers in even the remotest areas fast.

“Since there’s never been Ebola in West Africa before, health workers are completely unfamiliar with it,” says Kate Tulenko, senior director of health systems innovations at IntraHealth and director of the US Agency for International Development-supported CapacityPlus project. “Providing them with even basic information through our SMS and interactive voice response Ebola courses on their mobile phones will go a long way to help them protect themselves and their communities.”

Dangers of Misinformation

Misinformation among health workers and the public have fueled panic and contributed to the spread of the outbreak. Rumors about the virus abound—some believe it’s caused intentionally by health workers, others that it’s a hoax contrived for purposes of genocide or even organ harvesting.

Ebola virus has been dubbed a biosafety level 4 hazard by the CDC, which requires the highest level of biological safety and containment. Yet many health workers in West Africa have not yet been trained to protect themselves while meeting these new challenges.

And governments often don’t have the personnel data they need to mobilize their health workers so they may contribute effectively to a well-executed emergency response.

IntraHealth is currently exploring distribution methods to quickly share the new mLearning courses with health workers, including by integrating them into our interactive voice response technology in Senegal, where they could become widely available in a variety of languages.

Together with implementation teams on the ground in West Africa, we’re also working to review data collected through iHRIS—the health workforce information systems we’ve supported around the world and in eight West African countries—to determine how they can be used toward targeted education, communication, and coordination among frontline health workers.

“West African countries have been working hard for several years now to adapt, install, and get high-quality data into iHRIS in West Africa,” says Dykki Settle, director of health workforce informatics at IntraHealth. “We are excited this hard work now offers new capacities to help local health workers address the challenges of the Ebola epidemic.”

Protecting health workers is a priority during this time of crisis. Without trained personnel to treat and prevent infections, the virus will continue to spread. And West Africa’s health workforce weakens with the loss of every health worker who becomes infected or flees the region.

IntraHealth invites countries, governments, and other organizations to partner with us and use mobile technology to reach health workers with the information they need quickly and effectively. Through greater global cooperation and collaboration, not only can we address this immediate crisis, but we can also strengthen West Africa’s health systems and the workers who provide the population with care.

IntraHealth’s iHRIS software platform and our interactive voice response work are conducted under the US Agency for International Development-supported CapacityPlus project.

Interactive Voice Response

IntraHealth’s interactive voice response program helps health workers update their training with simple mobile phones, which are widely used among health workers in West Africa. Our first-of-its-kind program uses a question-and-answer approach that’s scientifically proven to help health workers retain information better than more traditional learning methods.

This method can be particularly helpful with community health workers, many of whom are illiterate or semi-literate.

Training programs that use interactive voice response can be recorded in any language. And users benefit from the flexibility—they can update their training any time, without leaving their clinics unstaffed.

The same technology could help to educate the general population on Ebola as well, serving as a trustworthy source of information and preventing rumors from damaging emergency response efforts.


iHRIS  (pronounced “iris”) is IntraHealth’s suite of free, open source software applications that help countries around the world to gather and manage their own workforce data.

The data stored in iHRIS can help decision-makers answer key questions: How many health workers are in the country? Where are they? Are they working where they’re most needed? What services are they qualified to provide? Are they licensed and registered? Is their training up to date? Does the country need more health workers? Where and of what types?

Using iHRIS, government officials and clinic workers alike can easily find, share, manage, and update personnel files, including mobile phone numbers. The software is customizable, so users can tweak it to fit their own data needs. And it interoperates with other health information systems that are already in wide use across West Africa, such as OpenMRS and DHIS 2.

iHRIS offers a way to store personnel data that can help officials reach health workers quickly with targeted messages and communicate effectively during an emergency. Officials can also use iHRIS data to create maps of where outbreaks are occurring compared to where health workers are stationed.

So far, 19 countries are using iHRIS to track over 950,000 health worker records worldwide.