Fri, Sep 21, 2012 - Page 4 News List

Team helps Swaziland with testing

CELLPHONE ACCESS:Health clinics often have poor Internet access, but the cellular network is reliable, so researchers focused on SMS as a delivery service

By Ho Yi  /  Staff reporter

A team of health professionals from Taipei Medical University yesterday announced the results of a study on a system designed to return HIV test results via cellphone short message service (SMS) in Swaziland, providing evidence that the system can reduce turnaround time by up to 75 percent for clinics in remote areas.

HIV and AIDS are prevalent in Swaziland, where 31 percent of the nation’s adult population are infected with HIV, according to the statistics compiled by the International AIDS Conference in Washington in July.

Physicians in local clinics rely on test results to help them deliver treatment, so a prompt and reliable laboratory service is important for the diagnosis and management of the epidemic, said Li Yu-chuan (李友專), dean of the university’s College of Medical Science and Technology, who led the medical team.

“Test results such as the CD4 count are crucial to HIV treatment. So if the result is out of date, patients have to take another blood test,” Li said.

However in Swaziland, lab results for HIV tests often take weeks to be sent back to patients. Since local clinics and even hospitals lack the equipment to run tests, all blood samples are sent to a national laboratory in Mbabane, the nation’s capital, for analysis, Li said.

The laboratory then sends back the printed results using motorcycle delivery services.

“Bad road conditions and limited number of throughways connecting villages and towns mean delays,” Li said. “In some cases, the patients never receive their test results.”

In 2010, the university team decided to develop a system to mitigate the problem by using cellphones’ text messaging services to reduce turnaround time. The idea came when team members discovered that even though the country’s clinics often lack computers or have poor Internet access, the cellular network is reliable and mobile phones are widely used, said Chi Li-hsing (祁力行), a oral and maxillofacial surgeon at Taipei Medical University Hospital who participated in the project.

“In Swaziland, half of the households don’t have running water and electricity, but everyone has a mobile phone,” Lin said.

Dubbed as LabPush, the system enables laboratory results to be automatically translated into an SMS and sent to the cellular phone given to a particular clinic. The process usually takes less than three minutes to complete, Chi said.

According to the study the team conducted between June and December last year, 1,032 text messages containing test results were sent back to six clinics, while 965 printed results were returned to patients, suggesting that the SMS delivery system can reduce the loss rate.

Moreover, in half of the clinics, the average number of days saved by using the SMS system was 23 days, Li said, adding that reduced delivery time was even more significant for clinics located far from the national laboratory.

The study was published this week in PLOS ONE, an international online scientific journal.

According to the statistics of the National Referral Laboratory in Swaziland, there are about 3,000 CD4 tests submitted from 40 clinics each month, the team said, adding that the government of Swaziland has been considering the possibility of implementing the LabPush system in clinics across the country.

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