Background: Lay health workers (LHWs) are critical in linking communities and primary healthcare (PHC) facilities. Effective communication between facilities and LHWs is key to this role. We implemented a mobile health (mHealth) system to improve communication and continuity of care for chronically ill clients. The system focused on requests from facility staff to LHWs to follow up clients and LHW referrals of people who needed care at a facility. We implemented the system in two rural and semi-rural sub-districts in South Africa. Objective: To assess the feasibility of the mHealth system in improving continuity of care for clients in PHC in South Africa.
Method: We implemented the intervention in 15 PHC facilities. The clerks issued recalls to LHWs using a tablet computer. LHWs used smartphones to receive these requests, communicate with clerks and refer people to a facility. We undertook a mixed-methods evaluation to assess the feasibility of the mHealth system. We analysed recall and referral data using descriptive statistics. We used thematic content analysis to analyse qualitative data from semi-structured interviews with facility staff and a researcher fieldwork journal.
Results: Across the sub-districts, 2,204 clients were recalled and 628 (28%) of these recalls were successful. LHWs made 1,085 referrals of which 485 (45%) were successful. The main client group referred and recalled were children under 5 years. Qualitative data showed the impacts of facility conditions and interpersonal relationships on the mHealth system.
Conclusion: Using mHealth for recalls and referrals is probably feasible and can improve communication between LHWs and facility staff. However, the low success rates highlight the need to assess facility capacity beforehand and to integrate mHealth with existing health information systems. mHealth may improve communication between LHWs and facility staff, but its success depends on the health system capacity to incorporate these interventions