How smartphones fill the healthcare gap in Myanmar

Digital-Diversity-BannerOn average, a person living in Myanmar (also known as Burma) will live two decades less than someone in the U.S. For Michael Lwin, son of two doctors who came to the United States from Myanmar in the 1970s, this isn’t just a statistic. It’s a deeply unfair consequence of a geographic lottery. A lottery that favors him over his cousin Yar Zar Minn Htoo, a doctor and computer scientist, who has suffered from diseases endemic to the developing world. In 2012, the two teamed up to start Koe Koe Tech, a healthcare systems provider for health institutions and the people of Myanmar. In a nation of 4 doctors per 10,000 citizens, mobile phones represent a powerful instrument to overcome state capacity by providing healthcare information, advice and feedback in rural and urban areas.

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By Cayte Bosler

Lwin, who grew up in the United States and who met his cousin in Myanmar for the first time in 2009, understands the inequality between healthcare systems firsthand. Addressing an audience in the U.S., he displays an Instagram famous photo of supermodel Gisele Bundchen seen pampered by a personal staff while nursing her baby.

“Look, healthcare in the U.S. is pretty good. Some people saw this and were pretty pissed,” he says. “And that’s because there are people like my cousin Yar Zar and his wife Ni Ni who lack even basic access to healthcare.”

Yarzar contracted hepatitis B after seeking treatment in a rural setting where a doctor used dirty needles and he was infected. “For events entirely outside his control,” says Lwin, “he’ll live on average two decades less. I think that is incredibly unjust.”

The cousins are determined for the story to change. They created the country’s first mobile health app and it sends messages to users’ phones, catered to their needs. Myanmar only recently opened to the world in 2012, and as a result leapfrogged text messaging (SMS) with over 90% of the population using smartphones. The mobile health platform delineates medical information key to increasing lifespans. With the app, Yarzar can find a certified doctor, clean needles, antibiotics and can read health information related to management of his Hep B and for the health of his baby daughter. He can also order high quality medication delivered to him through NGO affiliated sales agents.

The Koe Koe mobile health platform. Photo courtesy Michael Lwin
The Koe Koe mobile health platform. Photo courtesy Michael Lwin

“It is going to be a huge benefit to the women and children of Myanmar, as 70% of births occur without a professional medical service,” says Lwin. The packaged health modules span over 32 different health categories.

“Education and prevention is important,” explains Lwin. “We know anecdotally that many people don’t get tested then die one day. Half the population is at risk for hypertension and that’s just a matter of nutrition education. They put too much salt in the food. It’s about changing behaviors. For example, you can read about mosquito nets and how they are useful.” In a region where Malaria is considered a huge threat, knowing where to buy a quality mosquito net can be the difference between life or death. In addition to the education, people can use the app to locate doctors, order health products and store a digital record of their medical history.

Koe Koe’s long-term aim is to develop a nationwide health information exchange where health information, properly anonymized and secured, will be shared among Myanmar health institutions to inform evidence-based health policy to improve and save lives. Koe Koe tech plans to scale to the rest of Southeast Asia and other developing countries, especially as smartphones continue to outpace the sale of feature phones. They currently have 7,000 users.

The growth of the company is supported by 15 employees all hired to make up an intentionally diverse team. Half are women and one-third are Muslim, something Lwin and Yarzar see as important living in uniting a region with sectarian issues.

“It’s pretty simple,” explains Lwin. “Healthcare is broken in Myanmar and we are going to fix it. We are in this to improve and save lives.”

cayteboslerCayte is a journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. She travels to study and write about entrepreneurs in unlikely places solving the world’s most pressing problems. She freelances on a variety of subjects including science, technology, international development, foreign policy and travel. She possesses a great affinity for snails. You can follow Cayte on Twitter @caytebosler

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, author, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of, FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange. He shares exciting stories in Digital Diversity about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can follow him on Twitter @kiwanja



Meet the Author
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.