Hewlett Packard: Using IT to Help Revolutionise Healthcare in Kenya

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Hewlett Packard: Using IT to Help Revolutionise Healthcare in Kenya

The technology company's commitment to global social innovation has opened up new market opportunities
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The waiting room at the Blue House clinic in the outskirts of the Mathare slums, Nairobi. The mortality rate for babies with HIV who remain untreated is 50%. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Wednesday, June 27, 2012 - 12:55pm

By , Guardian Professional

Computer science students at Strathmore University in Nairobi have developed coding for a database giving health workers online access to lab results for infants who have been tested for HIV.

The university is a partner in a project that has used information technology to revolutionise healthcare provision in Kenya. Instead of the many months it previously took for blood specimens to travel from a rural health clinic to government laboratories for testing, then for the paper results to go back out to the rural clinic before any treatment could begin, the process now takes less than 30 days.

Since the mortality rate for babies with HIV who remain untreated is 50%, many lives are being saved.

Paul Ellingstad, who works on social innovation at global technology company Hewlett-Packard, is proud of the Early Infant Diagnosis project, to which HP has contributed five state of the art data centres, giving the Kenyan government a modern IT infrastructure for the first time. As a measure of its success, the programme is being replicated by the ministry of health in Uganda and another project is starting in Nigeria.

"Technology isn't a silver bullet, but it is a key enabler that allows the government to have transparency of information so better decisions can be made and you can see better health outcomes," Ellingstad says.

This is the new face of corporate social responsibility, something HP calls "social innovation" stemming from Michael Porter and Mark Kramer's work on shared value: the move by companies to try to align their own growth with meeting societal needs.

In a survey of senior corporate managers last year, Forbes Insights found that almost 80% agreed with the statement that "demonstrating our social purpose is crucial to shareholder value". HP points out that companies have a responsibility to be a force for social good. Of the world's 100 largest "economies", 51 are corporations.

The $51.5m (£32.8m) HP spent on social programmes last year has to be seen in the context of the $32bn in revenues it made in the latest quarter.

But is it really possible for any company, whose raison d'être is to make money for its investors and shareholders sitting in far off western boardrooms, to act for the greater social good in a country such as Kenya?

Ellingstad, who has just gained the new title of partnership and programme development director in HP's office of global social innovation, says it is possible, provided that companies closely focus their efforts, and work collaboratively. In the Early Infant Diagnosis project, HP is working with the Clinton Health Access Initiative (Chai), Swiss pharmaceuticals company Roche, local mobile phone network operator Safaricom, the university and, critically, the health ministry.

"Many times NGOs and private sector organisations, with the best of intentions, take a unilateral approach and parachute in a Swat team to try to solve a problem," says Ellingstad. "We believe that when you are talking about health and education, the government needs to be at the centre of any ecosystem of partners."

While unilateral action is far quicker than collaboration, it is much less effective, Ellingstad says, "We are more interested in long-term outcomes and sustainable progress. There's an African saying: 'If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go further, go together."

HP is working with Chai, and government health departments on other projects in Africa and Asia. It has created a cloud computing infrastructure in Nigeria and Ghana to allow people using basic mobile phones to find out whether the drug they are about to buy, most commonly to prevent malaria, is counterfeit.

In Botswana, healthcare workers use HP smartphones to send malaria information to a cloud database. They can tag the data with GPS co-ordinates, and issue SMS disease outbreak alerts. Ellingstad says huge leaps in technology have transformed fields like retail, IT and banking over the last 10 years, but health and education have been left behind.

"We see that there's a role for technology to fundamentally improve access to health care." And the starting point is the mobile phone, to which 5.7 billion people around the world have some access, he says.

Ellingstad says HP's social programmes have opened up major market opportunities, worth billions of pounds, in countries where HP had previously been known only for its printers. And they are appreciated by HP's 350,000 employees, who enjoy the "halo effect" to the company's reputation, and can even contribute their own skills. The company encourages employees to take up to four hours off a month to work as volunteers in community projects.

Other programmes use HP technologies to nurture entrepreneurs in developing countries, and to promote the teaching of science, technology, engineering and maths.

Which brings us back to the students in Strathmore University's computer science department, who, besides developing further applications for Kenya's health ministry, are involved in another HP project: a grid computing network that allows researchers from 20 universities to share computing power.

Ellingstad says students at Makerere University in Kampala improved on the work of the Kenyan students as they replicated the Early Infant Diagnosis project in Uganda, and fed their innovations back. "It is," says Ellingstad, "truly a virtuous circle of innovation and development."