Using Mobile Technology to Improve Public Health

At Annenberg and at Penn, research is definitely not confined to the laboratory. Students have the opportunity to follow their interests to the field to see where communication can help improve lives. Here is one story from Annenberg’s Deepti Chittamuru.

The rain pouring down upon the tiny hut in Jharkhand, India, where Annenberg doctoral student Deepti Chittamuru was desperately trying to sleep, was relentless.  So were the bedbugs. “They were trying to suck me dry,” said Chittamuru, a Annenberg doctoral student. 

Rather than being eaten alive in the cot she called a bed, Chittamuru tried sleeping on the floor.  But the heavy rain caused water to seep beneath the floorboard, leaving her bitten by bedbugs, wet, and cold.  And if that was not bad enough, then the overly moist conditions brought on an onslaught of mosquitoes.

Wet, bitten by bedbugs and mosquitoes, and exhausted, Chittamuru tried sleeping by sitting on a chair on the porch of the house. She wrapped her feet beneath her “since every square inch of exposed skin was being feasted on.”

“I could barely see the next morning from lack of sleep, and a swollen face from all the insect bites. It was days before I could see anything other than blotches and red angry rashes on myself everywhere that I looked.”

All of this in the name of field research.

Chittamuru spent the summer of 2011 traveling through rural India – Jharkhand, Karnataka, and Telangana with the objective of learning if a mobile technology (i.e., cell phone or other device) based intervention could help persuade pregnant women and their families to adopt maternal health practices. Scholarly may have been the intent, but that description hardly described her experiences.

Chittamuru used summer travel funds for research in India from Penn’s Center for Advanced Study of India (CASI).  She is the first Annenberg graduate student to receive this support.

“The United Nations and government of India have acknowledged that maternal mortality and morbidity is a major healthcare issue in India,” Chittamuru explains. “There is evidence to show that behavioral interventions with pregnant women and their families can be effective in alleviating maternal mortality and morbidity.” Her qualitative study, conducted over 10 weeks, was an important step in identifying and understanding the issues that prevent pregnant women and their families from adopting recommended maternal health practices in rural India.

Chittamuru conducted over 50 interviews and moderated five focus groups. Pregnant women, their families, and community health workers participated. She lived with the community health workers to better understand their role in the rural Indian healthcare eco-system.

“This summer’s research helped me gain a broad and general understanding of some of the most common behavioral challenges faced and experienced by pregnant women in rural India in adopting recommended maternal health behaviors like consuming iron/folic acid tablets, regularly attending ANC visits, and getting their tetanus immunizations,” said Chittamuru.

“One of my major takeaways from this summer’s work was that the issue of lack of adoption of recommended maternal health practices in rural India is not simply a matter of lack of information or even just lack of access to healthcare services. Just throwing a lot of technology at the problem will not solve much.

“I have learned and thus now argue that there are complex and very nuanced behavioral issues at work, which need to be addressed in addition to offering information to pregnant women and their families about recommended maternal health practices. In order for a behavioral intervention that attempts to deal with these issues to be truly successful, it not only has to target the behavior of pregnant women themselves but also their families and the community health workers  who educate all these people about recommended maternal health practices.”

Her work also led to a University-wide initiative – the Information Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) seminars. In the spirit of the Penn Compact’s integrating knowledge objective, the seminars bring together researchers and faculty from Penn’s Annenberg School, Graduate School of Education, School of Engineering and Applied Science, School of Arts and Sciences, Perelman School of Medicine to create these seminars.  The objective of this interdisciplinary venture is to better understand the role that information communication technologies play in international development, and the impact that they have on impoverished and under-resourced communities.