Harnessing Digital Technology for Maternal Health

By Mary-Ann Etiebet, lead and executive director, Merck for Mothers

Merck for Mothers is our company’s $500 million global initiative to create a world where no woman dies giving life. As part of our efforts, we’re focused on addressing the unmet need for family planning, which could save as many as 76,000 maternal lives every year. That helps lift the global maternal mortality burden simply by delivering the services that women and girls want and need.

But for many women, particularly in emerging markets, the barriers to accessing — even seeking — quality family planning remain high. Consider Loise Kamua, a 22-year-old university student in Nairobi. When we met Loise last December, she told us how determined she was to finish her degree and pursue a career before she had children.

Unfortunately, family planning wasn’t something Loise felt she could talk about – not with friends, or her parents, or even her doctor. For many young people in Kenya, the topic is taboo. But then Loise discovered NIVI.

NIVI is a digital service developed with support from Merck for Mothers. It provides information about family planning and can refer users to nearby clinics for services. To engage, all Loise had to do was text a number advertised on Facebook. “When I saw it, I was excited, because I knew at least now I can ask someone who won't judge me,” she said.

We decided to partner with NIVI’s visionary creators and invest in its deployment because we saw its potential to empower women like Loise to make informed choices and take control of their reproductive health. We invested in NIVI because it represents the power of digital technology to transform healthcare in emerging markets, by bridging critical gaps in information, equity and quality.

With NIVI, we’re leveraging basic mobile phone and texting capabilities – no data plan, computer or high-speed Internet connection required – to address the high unmet need for family planning in countries like Kenya, and in doing so, support Merck for Mothers’ mission to improve maternal health outcomes and reduce maternal mortality.

The insights we gain from tracking the use of these tools and technologies allows us to deepen our understanding of the challenges mothers and their caregivers face, and leverage that knowledge to refine these systems and platforms, increase their value and maximize their impact.

One of NIVI’s most exciting and innovative features is the Chatbot, which supports two-way conversations and can address common questions about maternal and reproductive health. Its back-end capabilities allow us to gather real-time data around family planning – key information for governments, policymakers and other stakeholders. This information, obtained in real-time, is also being leveraged to make NIVI even more responsive to the needs of its customers.

Moreover, the Chatbot’s ability to manage fairly complex, nuanced interactions via simple two-way texting offers new possibilities for meaningful engagement with patients and consumers.

At Merck for Mothers, we remain committed to exploring digital approaches that put the needs of patients – and women like Loise – at the center. And we look forward to sharing what we learn along the way.

Learn more about how Merck for Mothers is driving digital innovations.