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26.03.2008 Health

NYU MEDICAL STUDENT RETURNS TO GHANA, WHERE HE HELPED CREATE THE WORLD’S 1ST FREE COUNTRY-WIDE MOBILE PHYSICAN NETWORK (W/Ghana Telecom)

By Nadine Woloshin

Brian Levine, a 4th year medical student at the NYU School of Medicine and a member of the inaugural class of the NYU Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation Graduate Fellowship in Social Entrepreneurship, returns to Accra, Ghana next week (3/31 to 4/4), where he helped establish the world's first free country-wide mobile physician network, permitting Ghana's 2000 physicians to contact each other for second opinions, consultations and referrals to better serve the nation's population of 22 million (one doctor per 11,000 people).

Just three months after the network began, almost a third of Ghana's physicians are using it; by June, Dr. Levine projects that half of Ghana's physicians will use it. If the model proves as successful as it seems, he believes it can be replicated in other countries.

Next week, Dr. Levine will meet with the Ghana Medical Association (GMA), the CEO of Onetouch, the Ghanaian cell phone company that provides the physicians with the free service, Ghana's Minister of Health, and the Health Director of USAID. His goal is to help the GMA write a grant so it can run independently and take ownership of the program. He's also working on a sponsorship program with Palm (the Smartphone manufacturer), so physicians can inexpensively purchase Smartphones with access to medical textbooks, academic resources, and two-way text messaging that can be used for epidemiologic studies and assistance in the field.

Dr. Levine chose Ghana because it's English speaking, a relatively safe democracy, and is home to an NYU study abroad site that is his home base. Using funding from the NYU School of International Health Program, a $2000 travel grant from the Milton Rosenbluth Foundation, and $800 of his own money, he travelled to Ghana for the first time in November 2007; he booked a hotel in downtown Accra without knowing a soul.

Originally, he hoped to create an internet-based network that would enable physicians in Ghana communicate with physicians at NYUMC and Bellevue, but quickly realized the country's technological infrastructure would not support the website he designed.

“It was only after failing at this first project that I realized I had the wrong goal,” he says. “Instead of creating a website to serve as a communication tool, I should have been focused on creating communication with whatever tool was possible. Everyone in Ghana has a cell phone, but the cost of minutes put limitations on the physicans to use their phones for lengthy consultations.”

In a last ditch effort to create a communication network, he walked into the main offices of Ghana Telecom on November 21st, and asked to speak with the CEO of the mobile phone division (called Onetouch). He pitched the idea that Onetouch could be the first company in the world to unify an entire country's physicians based on a single cell phone carrier. After two hours of “lively” discussion, The CEO signed an agreement that Dr. Levine typed on his computer. He made an appointment for later in the day to meet the General Secretary of the GMA and presented him with the signed One-Touch agreement. Later that week, he oversaw the meeting between Ghana Telecom and GMA that concluded with a photographed handshake. ON December 15th, the deal was announced to the nation during a press conference.

In July, Dr. Levine begins his obgyn residency at Columbia. He has also received a $100,000 Microsoft Grant and will work with the NYU School of Medicine's Curan Institute to monitor HIV compliance in Ghana by cell phone.

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