Alum Helps Speed Healthcare to Remote Places

by Elisabeth O'Donnell on June 13, 2017 · 0 comments

in Alumni Life, Health

Dimagi only creates software fit for a community’s available technology, such as this Nokia phone in India (2013).

Throughout his time at MIT, Jonathan Jackson ’03, MEng ’05 assumed he would build his career at a startup or Goldman Sachs, where he interned as an undergraduate. “I liked all of the typical things MIT students do, like finance, consulting or startups,” Jackson said.  

Instead, Jackson, with his partner Vikram Sheel Kumar, founded Dimagi, a social enterprise providing open-source software to frontline healthcare workers in low-resource settings around the world. Jackson currently holds the post of CEO and Kumar, a physician and engineer, is chief medical officer. While volunteering for a Course 6 (electrical engineering) class, Jackson met Kumar, who was completing his masters thesis in the MIT Media Lab and working on an early version of Dimagi. Kumar wanted to combine global health and technology through the company but had not yet decided how. The two hit it off, and founded Dimagi with a software focus. With Dimagi’s product, CommCare, organizations can create custom mobile applications for field workers to collect medical information and track patient data over time. Today, CommCare is used on more than 500 projects in over 60 countries. The company and its founders have been recognized numerous times, most recently by Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s America’s Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs.

Jonathan Jackson ’03, MEng ’05

What does CommCare do? The software eliminates the need for paper-based records, allowing healthcare workers to standardize care and spend more time with patients. CommCare also includes educational tools to help workers improve their skills.  

Speed is important in healthcare delivery. Malnutrition is common in poor, rural regions of developing countries, but response time can be slow with many paper-based organizations. CommCare applications quickly collect and disseminate measurements on patients, informing organizations which resources are needed and where. Furthermore, the data gathered on patients informs the organization if workers are properly implementing the provided resources; if they are not, educational tools accommodating all literacy levels are easily provided. In Assam, India, Operation Smile created a CommCare application to track the nutritional status of children with cleft lip and palates. The application tracks children’s nutritional progression and indicates when patients are ready for surgery.

CommCare also facilitates SMS interactions between patients and workers, ensuring patients receive the care they need regardless of physical or social barriers. Even though studies show that women in control of their family planning are more economically secure, educated, and healthy, some 215 million women and girls worldwide lack family planning resources. Distance acts as a huge barrier, many women traveling miles to reach clinics only to learn the contraception they need is out of stock. With CommCare, clinics can send SMS notifications of their available stock, allowing women to plan their clinic trips accordingly. SMS messages can also privately remind patients of appointments, working to encourage return visits despite taboos against reproductive healthcare.

Dimagi moved its headquarters to Cambridge, MA in 2012, becoming one of the first benefit corporations (for-profit corporate entities that focus on public good) in the state. The company also has bases in New Delhi, Dakar, Cape Town, and Washington D.C. Jackson has traveled to many of the countries where CommCare is implemented, witnessing its impact on patients and medical workers in remote areas. “It’s a huge productivity gain for them, it enables them to engage and continue in education. They work incredibly hard, sometimes two jobs, sometimes unpaid. They’re massively under-trained, underpaid, and under-resourced for the job they need to do for their community, but they do it in spite of all those challenges and we want to support their efforts,” Jackson said.

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