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Iscol speakers say cell phones, texting saves lives abroad

In underserved and disconnected communities around the world, access to health care needs to be improved, and Medic Mobile, a nonprofit that uses cellphone technology to improve health services in Africa, Central America and South Asia, is on a mission to revolutionize global health through communication technology, said two of its co-founders.

At the Iscol Family Program for Leadership Development in Public Service lecture on campus Oct. 1, co-founders Joshua Nesbit and Nadim Mahmud discussed Medic Mobile's mission and its origins in a roundtable discussion with Jill Iscol, who with her husband, Ken Iscol '60, funded the lecture series.

"A billion people will never see a doctor in their lives," said Nesbit, who thought of the idea for Medic Mobile while doing research in rural Malawi for a doctor who was providing care to some 250,000 people. On a trip to a nearby town with a community health volunteer, he was shocked to find better cellphone reception there than in Palo Alto, Calif.

Nesbit said 90 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is covered by a cell signal, and 50 percent of the people own a cellphone.

"That will be 100 percent in less than two years," said Nesbit, who brought 100 cellphones to a Malawi hospital to bridge the gap through text messaging between health workers and the hospital. "In six months they doubled the number of patients they were treating for TB, they were providing emergency response for the first time, and they were saving thousands of hours of travel time," he said.

Mahmud said that while he worked at a cholera treatment institute in Dhaka, Bangladesh, he saw a person die for the first time. The patient had traveled three days, "and yet we knew that there had been a satellite treatment facility no more than 15 minutes from their house, and they just didn't know about it," said Mahmud.

The large communication gap between available resources and health care providers inspired Mahmud to try to close it. When he met Nesbit at Stanford University, the two decided to leverage cellular networks.

Medic Mobile has supported more than 30 organizations in 15 different countries. Over the past three years, the organization has grown to a staff of 20 from five. The nonprofit has grown organically, and the logic behind what it does makes sense, which is why funders and other organizations were interested, according to Mahmud.

"Josh and Nadim's story is one that captures the spirit of a generation. It's the story of collaboration, a story about technology, about generosity, integrity, decency and about a reverence of the dignity of every life on this planet," said Iscol, whose book (with Peter Cookson), "Hearts on Fire," discusses Medic Mobile.

When asked how he had time to work for Medic Mobile as a medical student, Mahmud replied, "If you really believe in something, you find time to do it."

Mahmud told students in the audience they could donate used cellphones to the cause via hopephones.org, part of Medic Mobile that refurbishes used phones for Medic Mobile's mission.

The Jill and Ken Iscol lecture series has brought distinguished community leaders to Cornell since 2001. This lecture is part of the Entrepreneurship and Personal Enterprise Speaker Series.

Julian Montijo '15 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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