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Globally, five billion people lack access to safe, affordable and timely surgery and anaesthesia care, with the horrific statistic that up to 18 million people die every year as a consequence[1].

To meet this overwhelming need, Mercy Ships – an international charity operating the largest non-governmental hospital ship in the world – provides free surgeries and land-based capacity-building programs in sub-Saharan Africa from its hospital ship, the Africa Mercy.

The challenges of poor roads, natural obstacles (such as mountains and rivers) and the remoteness of communities, combined with the debilitating effects of illness or disability, make it almost impossible for many patients to travel the long distances to the Africa Mercy for screening and scheduling. This means that many people who have treatable conditions miss out.

Compounding these hurdles, many of those who make the difficult journey may not be able to be treated and then face the challenges of returning home.

Historically, Mercy Ships held screening and scheduling events in major port cities. We have heard many stories of the incredible efforts patients have made – including selling their cow or land just to meet the transport costs – with no guarantee that their condition is treatable.

A new smartphone app was designed by Mercy Ships volunteers to reduce these travel barriers and provide equitable access to surgery. Critically, the app means that patients in areas that are inaccessible or unsafe for Mercy Ships staff to get to can still be assessed. Local healthcare workers in remote areas are able to conduct a preliminary assessment by using the app to take photos as well as record information relating to the patient. Once these are submitted, the surgical team onboard the Africa Mercy undertake a full review and confirm if the patient’s condition is treatable.

The Republic of Cameroon in Central Africa has a population of 23 million and is divided into 193 health districts. Due to district border conflicts, Mercy Ships crew were unable to travel to 106 of the 193 districts which are home to 11.5 million people or roughly half the population. However, equipped with the app, 30 Cameroonian doctors travelled to every health district in Cameroon, registering 4,954 potential patients who would have missed out on potentially life-saving or life-changing surgery.

“Since introducing the app, 70% of Mercy Ships patients have been found and assessed where they live,” said Alan Burrell, the Managing Director of Mercy Ships Australia. “More importantly, working with innovative technology means surgery and treatment is available to patients in the lowest wealth quintiles who need it the most and live in the poorest and most remote areas of the poorest nations.”

[1] Source: Lancet Commission Review on Global Surgery, 2015.