SEATTLE — In South Africa, a mobile messaging application is helping millions of people improve their health. Hi4Life, short for Health Information for Life, gives South African people access to education about health issues and preventing sexually transmitted diseases, particularly the spread of HIV/AIDS. South Africa has the largest HIV epidemic in the world. Hi4Life experts answer user questions and share information to educate the public on ways to protect themselves. It also provides information about self-care during pregnancy, care of infants and major health issues for men and boys. More than three million people use the application.
Hi4Life App Targets the Varying Needs of Different Demographics
The idea for the app came from the fact that, in South Africa, more households own a cell phone than a radio. Designers of the app realized that mobile devices could be a powerful tool for reaching the public and disseminating important health information. The app also uses mobile phones to improve communication and tracking between healthcare professionals and patients in a country with too few doctors and clinics.
Hi4Life targets three major demographic groups in need of healthcare in South Africa. It reaches girls, women and mothers with topics such as sexually transmitted infections, reproductive health, prenatal care and surviving postpartum depression. For boys, men and dads, it covers advice for new fathers, the pros and cons of male circumcision and aid for erectile dysfunction. It also has resources available to help those who care for infants. These include information on infant feeding and nutrition, vaccines and immunization.
The Hi4Life service is free and allows users to remain anonymous if they wish. For many young South Africans, it is uncomfortable for them to ask their family members these kinds of questions. This app also allows users to ask questions of healthcare experts. For medically underserved populations, to be able to access reliable healthcare information is essential.
Polls Share Crucial Information with Healthcare Professionals and Program Planners
Hi4Life offers two-way communications, allowing healthcare providers to collect information so that they know how to better target care for these populations. Hi4Life runs daily polls that receive more than 2,500 replies a day. In one poll, the app asked users, “If you have had sex without a condom, what was the main reason?” The poll revealed that there were three main reasons:
- No condoms around.
- The respondent does not like using condoms.
- The respondent’s partner does not like using condoms.
The data showed that women were much more likely than men to have sex without a condom because of their partner’s preference and that men were much more likely to have sex without a condom because they did not like using them. This helped healthcare experts and experts on sexually transmitted diseases to better plan education and information campaigns.
Hi4Life Addresses Knowledge Gaps About Healthcare in South Africa
One reason that Hi4Life is effective is because it encourages interactivity, which improves outcomes. According to UNICEF’s report entitled “mHealth and Young People in South Africa,” mobile health services like Hi4Life are popular with young people, who are often on their phones. The UNICEF report states that “Interactivity is a critical feature that supports continued engagement and knowledge transfer. The ability to ask questions, have them responded to immediately, to comment on topics and communicate with other users has contributed to the success of mHealth services.”
The education of the public is often overlooked as a powerful tool for creating change. Part of the reason that Hi4Life is so effective is because it provides information that millions of people simply do not know. Without this knowledge, they may not take the necessary precautions to prevent contracting sexually transmitted diseases or protect their infants from commonly contracted childhood diseases. Despite years of hard work to better inform the public, recent studies show that only 59 percent of young people in South Africa know of effective ways to prevent contracting HIV. As of 2016, only 5 percent of schools were teaching comprehensive sexual education. The government has promised to invest more in education.
Hi4Life is part of a new movement that is using cellular technology to change the nature of healthcare in South Africa. In a country where even asking questions about sex is still stigmatized, where domestic violence is rampant and where millions live without regular access to clean water or electricity, this app can serve as a life-saving source of information. Though it sounds ambitious, it may be true that, as the app’s developers argue, Hi4Life can help future generations lead healthier, happier lives.
– Evann Orleck-Jetter