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How a Health Hotline is Supporting Frontline Health Workers During COVID-19

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COVID-19 prevention measures that limit mobility make it even more critical for ministries of health to use all the tools at their disposal to provide health information to their populations and help with continuity of care.

When the Malawi Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP) needed a way to get accurate information out to health workers and citizens, they did not have far to look. Chipatala cha pa Foni (CCPF or Health Center by Phone), a health hotline that helps to relieve the burden of limited access to health care services, provides a safe and effective way for people to access the health center and was already well-established and owned by the MoHP. The hotline’s toll-free number is now the official line for reaching health workers and getting answers to any questions related to the pandemic in Malawi.

CCPF started nine years ago with VillageReach collaborating with the Malawi Ministry of Health and Population (MoHP). Five years ago, the Johnson & Johnson Foundation began its support of VillageReach as it expanded to national coverage and grew from providing maternal, neonatal and child health topics, supporting expansion to include nutrition information and sexual and reproductive health information specifically for adolescents. The access to the hotline increased as it scaled nationally with support from the mobile network operator Airtel, and soon it included all health topics.

Today, the Malawi Ministry of Health and Population owns and manages CCPF, and 20 hotline staff who were formerly employed by VillageReach are now official government employees in the MoHP. This investment in staff and adoption of the service demonstrates a milestone toward universal health coverage in Malawi. It also illustrates how private donor investment can support NGO innovations rooted in partnership with the government to strengthen the national primary care system.

“A critical part of making sure that we can scale and sustain high-impact primary health care solutions is co-creating with government from the beginning,” said VillageReach president Emily Bancroft. “As a community, we underestimate the time it takes to move from proof of concept to scale, including the resources it takes to transfer day-to-day management, budgets, and systems support from a partner to the government. This process has transformed our organization, and how we approach co-creation and collaboration.”

It is programs like CCPF that aided in rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic. All CCPF workers quickly received COVID-19 training provided by the MoHP and since April 2, COVID-19 messages continue to be very popular with more than 30% callers selecting COVID-19 messages from the CCPF platform.

VillageReach is now supporting the government to better meet demand through interactive voice messages (IVR) and WhatsApp. They are providing remote training by phone for health workers and developing dashboards that provide the government with data to tailor rapid response plans.

This comes at a time that is critical for ensuring that communities have access to accurate health information, and provides some relief for frontline health workers, who now know they are supported by the health hotline. Maintaining primary health care services during an outbreak is important to keeping preventable diseases from creating additional long-term impacts beyond the outbreak itself.