Volta region currently holds one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. In the area, 363 child-bearing women have died over the span of four years. So when puzzled medical professionals convened to find solutions, they settled on an unlikely idea: WhatsApp.
Nkwanta Municipal Health Director, Dr. Laud Boateng led the team who conceived the idea. Under his leadership, he and his team have saved dozens of lives, including Esther Zagado.
Zagado complained of severe abdominal pains that wouldn’t go away. Apparently, it was an ectopic pregnancy.
“We have a page, a WhatsApp page. If you have any case concerning maternal health, you put it on the page before you refer the client so that is what I did,” said Paulina Dorgbadzi, a midwife who assisted Zagado with her complications.
She continued: “I explained what ectopic pregnancy was to her and I added that this case cannot be managed here unless I refer her to Nkwanta to go and do a scan. If they go and the scan shows that if it is not ectopic, whatever it is they will treat it so she agreed on it.”
Boateng says the cross-platform messaging app’s contribution has significantly cut down on delays.
“By the time you come, there is a medical team waiting for you and the patients are so happy,’” Boateng said about patients who use WhatsApp. “The patient goes back and announces that ‘I was taken care of very quickly’ and for us, this is the kind of engagement we want to have with our community.”
Research shows many child-bearing deaths arise due to location. To tackle the issue, Boateng analysed data and used global positioning systems (GPS) to locate where patients were coming from.
“We could tell that about 60 percent of our patients were coming from distances greater than 31 to 40 kilometers,” Boateng said. But because GPS doesn’t give details like road quality and traffic, he says takes some patients almost 24 hours to arrive at a hospital.
At another hospital in the region, WhatsApp’s impact has modernized the way they provide healthcare, says Dr. Kwaku Appiagyei, acting medical superintendent of Nkwanta South Municipal Hospital.
“Immediately you have a case that is beyond you, you take a picture of the referral then you upload it on the WhatsApp so that the facility would be prepared to wait for you,” he said. “We have an idea about the distance between where the patient is coming from so that we can follow up.”
Death by the numbers
According to a United Nations report, there are an estimated 378 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2007. The study finds that Ghana is unlikely to reach its targeted goal to reduce that number to 185 per 100,000 live births. Why? A survey indicates it’s in large part due to limited access to skilled birth attendants. Only 70 percent of pregnant women have access to them.
Of these deaths, most come from Ghana’s Volta Region, the fourth poorest region in the country, according to the World Health Organization. The area holds a maternal mortality rate of 706 per 100,000 live births, considerably higher than the national average.
An even stronger cause for concern, is where Africa stacks up on the global scale. Of the 830 women who die every day from childbirth-related complications, more than half come from sub-Saharan Africa.
“It is certainly not at the level that we want,” says Dr. Yaw Ofori Yeboah, Deputy Director in charge of Public Health in the Volta Region. “There is a lot of room for improvement, and as you can imagine, maternal health is at the core of the health sector. Where we are, we are not comfortable.”
But midwife Alice Yeboah is optimistic. "If a woman walks to our facility alive, it is our duty to make sure she leaves alive," and WhatsApp is helping medical teams do just that.