“What Africa needs is not a solution that solves a problem or two, but one that is adaptable to personal needs.” - Joshua Ihejiamaizu
Joshua Ihejiamaizu is a Nigerian techpreneur, designer (web, graphics, UI/UX) and innovator who has been involved in several digital health projects in Nigeria. In partnership with Johnson Okorie, they released the HealthMobile app which is meant to be the Wikipedia of health. He spoke to nuviun about the digital health space in Africa—including the challenges, opportunities, and possibilities.
nuviun: What is your background in apps development, and which projects have you been involved with in the past?
Joshua: I have worked on several mobile application projects in different sectors - health, enterprise communication, space exploration and mobile money. Winning the NASA Space Apps Challenge Nigeria in 2014 was a result of an Android Space application we built during the three-day hackathon. Prior to the release of HealthMobile, we designed and launched The HealthBook Project on campus in April 2013. It was an application for Blackberry and Java devices that helped students on campus diagnose between malaria and typhoid, and to help them see which diseases were spreading on campus in order to take action, based on the reports we uploaded from the Federal University of Technology Owerri Medical Center. The HealthBook Project was a huge success and gained attention globally, including being named as a semi-finalist for the 2013 Anzisha Prize for Social Innovation. It was limited, though, by the fact that it was local, so with HealthMobile, we wanted to build something the global online community could use to get timely and reliable medical information.
nuviun: Let's talk about HealthMobile. How did you come up with idea? What stages did you go through and who did you involve in the development of the app?
Joshua: HealthMobile was developed alongside Johnson Okorie, a colleague and friend at university. We have worked on several projects together throughout our stay on campus. We worked closely with a team of volunteer doctors from the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital who also serve as temporary members of our health advisory board. They helped us improve the quality of data and also accredited the entire application. It has been fun working with them as they are also young and ready to improve mobile healthcare.
nuviun: How many downloads does it have now?
Joshua: We have about 3,000 regular users from basically the same number of downloads from all the app stores the application is on at the moment.
nuviun: When you were developing it, what did you intend to achieve with the innovation? Looking at the product now, do you think the app is achieving that?
Joshua: We had and still have big dreams. Our goal is to create a 'Wikipedia for health' that fosters preventive medicine through timely information to different medical conditions everywhere in the world. We imagined a system that is not only predictive but is personal, social and scalable (grows on its own). HealthMobile only currently parses data from different trusted sources to users. Though useful to many people at the moment, it is still only a drop of water in the ocean of our ambitions.
nuviun: To what extent do you think you've gone regarding realization of set goals?
Joshua: We have applied for a few grants with little success so far. The idea now is to build it side by side with our main business. So, anything close to the final application will take some time to be up. But watch for an update this year.
nuviun: What are the peculiar challenges of health app development globally and locally?
Joshua: Globally, healthcare is too regulated and hence doesn't offer developers the freedom that makes innovation around any industry thrive. But with more information available to firms like Google through wearable devices, they may begin to offer much more intelligent mobile health solutions to users based on the amount of personal data that they will be getting every day. That is the most likely route to fostering adoption globally. Locally, it’s a completely different story. People generally do not care about their health until disaster strikes, and have thus delegated that duty not only to incompetent hospitals but to untrained pharmacists on the streets. Regulation does not exist in this market and the average user does not care. So, it’s not necessarily about the rich being the only ones able to afford quality care. It is about a broken culture of personal maintenance. Hence, a service like HealthMobile has been ‘underwhelmingly’ received so far in terms of active users from Nigeria.
nuviun: What do you think could and should be done to improve health app development and deployment in Nigeria?
Joshua: The only option left now seems to keep iterating until we find the product that works best for the market. Now that the National Health Bill is here and it focuses on primary healthcare, we can begin from there. Technology is only a way to foster access and prevent illness before they strike or get worse.
nuviun: What opportunities do you believe currently exist for app developers in the health sector?
Joshua: I think the pharmacists need an app—to help them earn more and to empower the people who flock to them without proper doctor's prescription. Also, the government agencies responsible for healthcare nationally and in different states are in dire need of technology solutions to connect with the masses.
nuviun: Why are health apps not yet as popular as those of entertainment, education and sports in Africa?
Joshua: It is a cultural issue. Literacy levels are still very low in these parts, despite the increasing number of university degree holders around. Those who are learned have grown up in a culture of shortcuts which is what entertainment and sports seem to offer. I don't think we have gotten it right with tech and education so far. Also, because the region is not producing much and talent is not being harnessed every day, our people are naturally preoccupied with issues with little relevance. A greater actively working population will lead to a greater need for health insurance and will also open the door for adoption of mobile health application solutions.
nuviun: What do you expect to happen in local health app development?
Joshua: Until a big investor comes around and puts money in to encourage developers to build, compete and properly market health solutions, I am afraid nothing significant will happen even if we launch new products. I believe it is competition that will drive adoption and we do not have that at the moment.
nuviun: Do you think mobile health tech could pose a threat to the jobs of health professionals?
Joshua: Well, technology has replaced people in different places (traffic wardens, toll gates and several others) but doctors and other health professionals are a hard bunch to replace. Every technology has geeks that use it and make it easier for the rest of the world to adopt that solution. Health practitioners are the geeks that we look to in order to foster adoption. And when that happens, it will only enhance their productivity and income sources rather than putting them out of work.
nuviun: In what areas do you think health app developers and healthcare professionals can interact?
Joshua: Preventive medicine. The professionals need to tell us what is possible and useful to develop that is within the boundaries of the law.
nuviun: Which problems in African healthcare do you believe digital health solutions could help in solving?
Joshua: Malaria, tuberculosis, and typhoid. If you can predict these diseases before they happen in a community or home, you can prevent their spread. Ultimately, what we need is not a solution that solves a problem or two, but one that is adaptable to personal needs (something better than a 'Wikipedia' for health). It will take a lot of technical skill to develop but it is possible if the right ecosystem is created by the regulators of healthcare.
Paul Adepoju is an award-winning Nigeria-based freelance journalist. He is the managing editor of HealthNewsNG.com Africa’s leading health news platform, and is a correspondent for several international media organisations. He holds a master’s degree in cell biology and genetics, a diploma in legal studies, and is currently studying the dynamics of latent and active tuberculosis genetics for PhD.
The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.