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Winner Spotlight: Preventing ‘Stock outs’ in Developing Countries’ Clinics

The spread of Ebola has revealed critical communication breakdowns in some healthcare agencies. But the gaps aren’t limited to Ebola. In the developing world, 40 percent of the 1 million clinics treating patients experience “stock outs” in which their supply runs dry. Reliefwatch is using mobile phones to keep clinics better prepared.

The startup, whose founders came from the University of Chicago, won the health category of Chicago’s Challenge Cup this week. Cofounder Daniel Yu spoke about how he discovered the need for Reliefwatch and where the product has been deployed so far.

Give me a rundown on the problem that Reliefwatch is tackling.

With Reliefwatch, fundamentally what we’re addressing is that health organizations operating in the developing world are in areas where they don’t have access to computers or Internet — at least the vast majority of them. The problem is, since they don’t have information systems in place that are keeping track of what they have, when a health clinic runs out of a particular medicine, the suppliers don’t know about it. Patients come in, they need it and basically they’re out of luck. It’s a huge problem.

What Reliefwatch does is it utilizes the technology that people already have—basic mobile phones, which 90 percent of the people in the developing world have—to allow these health clinic workers to update their inventory just by using an automated voice system. That gets saved into a cloud system that then alerts the supplier when they’re running low so they can resupply them.

Take me through the steps of how this works if I’m a health clinic worker. How do I use it?

It’s actually very simple. If you’re a health clinic worker, you have a pre-scheduled voice call that will come in at, say, 5 p.m. every day. So you expect his call. When the call comes in it’s literally a voice prompt system. It’ll ask you, “How many Advil do you have? How many acetaminophen do you have?” And you respond with the keys, so you just type in a number on your number pad. It gets saved. At the end of that call all the information is immediately updated so somebody in the warehouse, or even back in the States, can log on and see, “Okay, I know exactly what that clinic has.”

How did you discover that there was this need?

The idea actually came out of my personal experience living in rural Egypt … about two years ago. While I was there I happened to go into a local health clinic one day, and the first thing I saw was a shelf with all of these expired medicines. When I asked the pharmacist running this clinic what was going on, he said, “That’s not even our biggest problem. I have all these essential drugs as well that I’m completely stocked out of. I have people come in and they need them and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

My background is actually as a web developer, so instinctively I always think, “Can I build or code something out to solve this problem?”

It really wasn’t immediately apparent to me what I could do, because this guy didn’t have a computer, didn’t have internet. What did they have to work with? But I realized he had a mobile phone—pretty much everyone else did, too. So I realized you can actually do some pretty cool things using just the basic mobile phone technology.

At that point I was still a student at the University of Chicago. I came back that Fall, kind of had developed the idea of building out this cloud system integrated to mobile phones. I got some developer friends to start working with me on this. Did some competitions, won some grant money, ended up dropping out of school to focus on this full time and, yeah, in May of this year we launched in Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama. In just the past week we got a contract to launch in Liberia, so we’re definitely excited.

So, three countries and one more up next. What’s the rollout plan from here?

I can say this has definitely been in flux, just with what’s happened in the past two weeks (getting a contract to help a number of Liberia clinics treating Ebola patients). We really realized the urgency of what we’re doing. Our initial contract was a three-month process of back and forth to figure out the specifications and all that. The Liberia contract happened in three days. Unfortunately, it’s nothing that’s going away soon and these organizations are working as quick as possible to contain his problem.

What’s interesting is the most valuable resource in combating a global health crisis like Ebola is information—knowing what’s happening where, what they need, what’s going on. And Reliefwatch is something that provides a lot of insight and transparency into those problems.

What did you get out of being involved with Challenge Cup and pitching to this audience?

It’s always an amazing opportunity to get up in front of so many people. I think the greatest thing for us moving forward is we’re excited about the support and the connections that 1776 is promoting as part of this process. For us, personally, a lot of the NGOs and multinational organizations are actually based in D.C., so we’re really looking forward to coming out and hopefully connecting with them while we’re in D.C.