Use of interactive voice response technology to address barriers to fistula care in Nigeria and Uganda

Vandana Tripathi, Elly Arnoff, Benjamin Bellows, Pooja Sripad


Background: The use of digital health technologies has expanded across low-resource settings, including in programs seeking to improve maternal health care seeking and service usage. However, there has been limited use of these technologies for screening and referral within maternal health, and many interventions have relied on SMS tools, which may have limited impact in settings with low female literacy. Digital health technologies have the potential to increase access to care for chronic maternal morbidities, such as obstetric fistula, and for women facing stigma, geographic isolation, and other sociocultural barriers to care seeking. This study documented the process of developing and implementing an innovative fistula screening and referral hotline using interactive voice response (IVR) technology, and described the service usage results and stakeholder perspectives associated with the hotline.
Methods: The IVR hotline was introduced within the context of a broader Fistula Treatment Barriers Reduction Intervention implemented by the USAID-funded Fistula Care Plus project in Ebonyi and Katsina states in Nigeria and Kalungu district in Uganda. The intervention used three communication pathways to disseminate fistula information and conduct fistula screening: trained community agents, trained primary health care providers, and the IVR hotline paired with mass media messaging. All positively-screened women were eligible to receive vouchers for free transportation to an accredited fistula treatment center. Quantitative and qualitative data on intervention implementation and use across all three communication pathways were gathered during intervention implementation, at baseline, midline, and endline; as well as through ongoing program monitoring. This study presents findings specifically on service usage and stakeholder perspectives related to the IVR hotline.
Results: Over a period of ten to twelve months of implementation, depending on the intervention area, a total of 566 women completed the IVR hotline screening process. Across the areas, 415 (73%) hotline callers screened positive for fistula symptoms. Hotline users and implementation partners reported positive impressions of the hotline, particularly the ability to preserve anonymity in seeking information and referral for fistula symptoms. Challenges to hotline use included limited mobile phone ownership and poor cellular network connectivity, affecting operability by women and community agents.
Conclusions: Implementation of the fistula screening hotline suggests that IVR-based interventions may be useful in expanding access to health services for stigmatized conditions, particularly in settings where literacy is limited. In the current context, such IVR tools require pairing with community and health system partners to complete referral and support clients. Further program experience and evaluation research is required to understand the options for integrating the IVR hotline or other interventions similarly using mobile technologies for screening and referral into broader digital health platforms that are sustained by national health systems or commercial business models.