Rany Woo recently visited five cities in India, where she surveyed tuberculosis patients and their doctors to learn why patients don’t take their medication.

“Before I left, I knew in the classroom that compliance to TB medication was a problem, but I had a superior attitude. I thought, ‘You have the medication, why don’t you just take it?’

“Then I met this guy in India who sits on a blanket for 10 hours a day, selling tomatoes. He doesn’t have the knowledge, the training, nor the education to know that it’s not okay to stop taking the pills.”

Rany Woo and two others recently won the MIT IDEAS Competition for developing CellCentives, a plan to create incentives for patients ages 15 to 34 to take their medication. This group comprises more than half the TB cases in the world.

The IDEAS Competition is an invention and entrepreneurship competition developed by MIT’s Edgerton Center and Public Service Center that helps young people change the world. Students work in teams to develop designs, materials, and strategies that benefit communities locally, nationally, or internationally. Woo’s team won $7,500 from the competition’s Yunus Innovation Challenge to implement the project. To recover, TB patients must take eight pills a day for nine months.

CellCentives is a mobile phone-based software. The patient is given a cell phone, and a text message is sent to the phone to remind them to take the pill. When the patient peels back the foil to pop the pill from the package, a code number is revealed. The patient punches the number into the cell phone to signal they’ve taken the pill, and if they comply with the regimen for several weeks, they get free wireless minutes on the phone. Another incentive may include a big prize if they stick to the program for months.

“Currently, nurses are paid to actually go to the homes of TB patients to watch them take their medication,” Woo says. “This is a cheaper alternative.”

Woo, who plans to become a doctor with an impact on global health, got the idea for the project from D-Lab, a hands-on MIT design class. Excited about providing a solution to the TB problem, she got a fellowship from MIT’s Public Service Center to travel to India to do the research.

“This project got me excited about expanding beyond my class work. This experience was so different from sitting in a classroom. When you’re in a country actually working with the people, you have a much better understanding of where they’re coming from.”