While my study hasn’t quite officially started yet (most of my equipment is en route via Cairo right now) I’ve started deploying some computers and mobile phones in a few health facilities, just to give them some time to familiarize themselves with the equipment, and to give myself and idea of what I’m going to run into with the other clinics when they get the equipment too.
Here’s how my research works: There’s a lot of complicated stuff about claims and claim processing. However, what I actually do is a lot of qualitative research on how people do their work, perceive information technology, and manage information. Then I introduce new technologies, and then ask them what they think of them, and see what they do with them. Sometimes I’ve done weird things with these technologies (like umm.. written them or installed specific software), and I definitely have a specific approach – I interfere with my subjects a lot in terms of computer training, and in the case of my partnering agency, being an IT consultant in this office for 15 months.
My baseline studies and are showing that my target user base 1) has a high interest in using information technology for patient information management but 2) very little training (for the most part). So if I were to introduce a new system, let’s say a laptop/netbook, 1) they would be very interested in learning how to use it, even paying for it but 2) they would have little to no background knowledge on where to start.
This has deep implications for user interface design. For many people, they choose a “kiosk” approach, making computers that have only one application (also known as the “appliance”). However, this has implications on sustainability. For private health facility owners who need additional skills, or for programs that cannot be expected to finance the equipment externally – paying for purpose-built machinery when the computers are capable of general purpose applications is impractical.
In this case – Claim Mobile is probably not a sufficiently valuable application to motivate purchase of laptops or phones. However – the phones, bundled with a camera, medical calculators, bible readers, internet browsing capabilities, etc, and the netbooks, with Microsoft Office, and Hesperian ebooks, and other medical resources, Barack Obama’s speeches, and the ability to access the Internet are of great value to the health facilities, and to the program management of the Uganda OBA project, even without the claims processing component. However – we hope to find out in this study how this value will actually play out against real purchasing decisions: laptops vs phones, Internet subscriptions vs pay per kb Internet use. In addition, we will observe over time how the health facilities and the Uganda OBA project will make use of their ownership of these devices, and how the new uses play into relationships, communications, and the management of the OBA program in general.
Some caveats about the deployments so far. Out of the first three deployments, two facilities did not have power. In one location, we donated a solar suitcase to Dembbe Clinic through WE CARE, an organization I’m involved with that seeks to provide improved electricity and communications for maternal health care. The two 20W panels provide sufficient power to charge the netbook, phone and lights for the facility.
In the second location, we are experimenting with the Barefoot Power Powapak, which provides solar led lighting sufficient for rooms (not quite surgery), and a cigarette adapter to charge phones. However I went back on Monday to check on the solar deployment, and discovered that the battery was completely discharged – probably because the solar panel was failing to charge the battery. I’ll introduce some solar logs to have them track usage more closely in January. The phone is being charged every few days from the clinician’s other place of work, which has access to electricity.
The third location, Kathe Medical Care, has very reliable access to electricity, because they are on the power line connecting to Rwanda. However, what interests me about this particular clinic is their innovative uses of ICTs prior to the study.
During my baseline surveys, I was introduced to Kathe Medical Care’s many colorful computer generated graphs and charts, all produced from the government-mandated monthly summary data.
There were charts showing trends of increasing numbers of antenatal visits over the past year, since the beginning of the OBA program, charts, comparing non-OBA deliveries to OBA deliveries, and charts showing from which sub-counties patients were coming.
I learned that the clinician did all of these from an Internet cafe, taking his monthly reports to Mbarara each month, entering them into Excel, to produce the charts.
Based on these charts, I assessed this clinic, and had high hopes that I would be able to learn from him how other clinics could use their data to benefit from computers.
I also assumed that he had a usb flash drive.
But to my surprise – one of his statements upon entrance into this study was that he had been giving people these charts for a while and hoped that at some point someone would think to give him a flash drive. You see it turned out that each time he produced one of these charts, he was entering in another year’s worth of data, all over again – he had nothing on which to save the Excel spreadsheet that he was using to create this chart. I think none of us ever imagined he could achieve so much without a flash drive in the first place!
This sort of begs a question: clearly he has enough income to purchase a flash drive, if he’s willing to purchase a netbook, and even a printer… What stopped him? (This is another blog entry entirely, maybe a paper or two). There’s a lot to be said at this moment about 1) trust in electronics purchased in Uganda and 2) the perturbation that I am as a ethnographic researcher in this environment. But I won’t say it now.
In the meantime… given what he was doing without a flash drive, and with the nearest Internet cafe an hour away at $1.50/hour, let’s just imagine what he’ll do with his own netbook and Internet access. Or perhaps not imagine… we can wait and see.