Delivering fast HIV and COVID-19 test results in Sub-Saharan Africa

Published 29 March 2021

Delays in receiving test results for HIV viral load or COVID-19 can be life threatening. In partnership with patients and healthcare providers in Sub-Saharan Africa, new Roche innovation brings results quickly and confidentially to patient smartphones.

Delivering critically important test results to patients in Sub-Saharan Africa can be a daunting task. To receive HIV viral load or COVID-19 test results, some patients must travel for hours to a crowded clinic, leaving family behind and losing a day’s wages. Overwhelmed clinics and medical staff, meanwhile, scramble to provide services.

Test results can be delayed by weeks or months for the millions of adults and children living with HIV and for those who may have been exposed to COVID-19. The need for timely test results is great, with about 20 percent of the South African population living with HIV

Now, the launch of a new mobile health solution means that patients in Sub-Saharan Africa with even the most basic smartphones can receive fast test results, health education, wellness tips and a virtual high-five on a cell phone app. The goal? Improving compliance and eliminating disease.

Empowering patients to improve health

“This is truly one of those ‘doing now what patients need next’ projects,” said Dana Duncan, Director of Clinical Science for Virology at Roche Diagnostics, which developed the app.

Dana has a keen perspective on the patient experience, having worked in pediatric HIV/AIDS care and treatment programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa before joining Roche. “The real value comes in empowering patients to have access to their results so they can improve their health.”

The new mobile app is the result of a two-year collaboration between Roche teams in Belmont, Santa Clara and Pleasanton locations in California, US, along with teams in Rotkreuz, Switzerland, and South Africa. To create the app, the teams partnered closely with more than 500 pilot study patients, along with healthcare providers, the Ministries of Health, research universities and laboratories in Africa.

The collaboration allowed the team to better understand the challenges faced by patients and clinicians in ensuring that HIV-positive children and adults remain adherent to their lifesaving antiretroviral therapy.

“This extensive collaboration has allowed us to gather key insights that resulted in the development of a solution that addresses really significant needs, while also establishing meaningful engagement with our external partners who will support this innovation in reaching the patients that are in need of this powerful tool,” said Chad Morris, Senior International Product Manager. 

Roche user experience designer Maya Venkatraman said for the app to be effective, it must work with the most basic smartphone. “We were diligent about making sure that the words that we use, the colours, the messaging really work for our audience.”

‘Sometimes their moment of happiness’

Once test results are available, patients can be immediately notified by a secure, colour-based message that lights up the phone screen.

In HIV viral-load monitoring, a bright green screen, complete with a congratulatory burst of fireworks, means the patient’s viral load is at a safe level. Yellow serves as a reminder to take medication daily, and a red message prompts the patient to return to the clinic. Additionally, HIV early infant diagnostic results can be sent to the caregiver alerting them that the child’s results are available at the clinic.

African woman using a smartphone
Once test results are available, patients are immediately notified

Patients have responded positively, with an enthusiastic nod to the celebratory fireworks. “Patients don’t always disclose to family or friends that they are HIV-positive,” Maya said. “It's a lonely journey for many people. You don’t have the place to celebrate the fact that you are doing well and taking your meds, so we put a little personal touch into the app. This sometimes is their moment of happiness.”

The app would be like a mother to me...It’s like talking to or confiding in someone.
HIV patient, Sub-Saharan Africa

The emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020 led developers to shift gears and redesign the app to also deliver test results for the virus. For these tests, a green message indicates a negative result and grey means contact the clinic.

Up to five patients can access results privately on one phone, which comes in handy when families or communities share one device.

Alejandra Guillen, International Business Leader for the mobile health solution, said feedback from patients and healthcare workers helped the team to deliver an exceptional tool in the fight against disease. “Feedback from patients who have had an opportunity to use the app has been very rewarding.”

Said one patient who was part of the pilot programme, “It was nice getting results in three days - waiting causes anxiety.”

“No more guessing, no more hoping,” said another.

When your results are in your hands, it empowers you.
Maya Venkatraman Roche user experience designer
African man smiling
The mobile app empowers patients and gives them certainty

“When you see the results popping in and you’re doing great, it brings joy to your life,” reported another patient.

In addition to HIV and COVID-19, the team in 2021 is expanding the utility of the app to hepatitis B and C, tuberculosis and cervical cancer screening, which are included in the Roche Global Access Program portfolio. It will also expand to countries beyond Sub-Saharan Africa.

As Product Manager for the mobile health solution, Matt Pan said there was “never any doubt about why you would wake up every morning and go to work. It’s a very important product and a very important mission.”

A native of Malaysia, Matt said several project team members have experience living, working or growing up in developing countries. “Issues related to global health are close to our hearts, and this work has been very personally fulfilling.”

Tags: People, Society, Access to healthcare