Healthcare professionals in Africa identify simple healthcare processes they believe would very difficult for any form of technology to replace.
Digital health is revolutionizing the health industry in various parts of the world, especially Africa, in areas such as health insurance and medical education. South Africa is an example of an African country where digital health, especially mHealth, is positively impacting healthcare delivery.
Furthermore, the current status of telemedicine in Africa is a further attestation to the pluripotent capacity of digital health to improve access, even though stakeholders are still dealing with challenges posed by adoption and sustainability, which are not major obstacles in several developed countries with more advanced healthcare systems.
Recently, nuviun asked healthcare professionals across the continent to identify simple healthcare processes they believe would very difficult for any form of technology to replace.
Clerking, the colloquial term used to describe the process of gathering a patient’s information, ranked high. While various forms of record-keeping software and platforms are available and are being used by health facilities across the continent, respondents believe it will still be almost impossible to entirely replace the roles that are currently being played by health professionals that collect data from the patients, which is subsequently stored on any of the platforms.
“One of the reasons this may be extremely difficult to replace is the high level of illiteracy, especially among patients that use the primary healthcare system. No system can be developed for them to input their data themselves without the assistance of a medical professional,” said Ojo Victoria, a medical officer at Nigeria’s OAU Teaching Hospital.
According to her, while the standard standing orders can be digitized, not all patients can go online to accurately type in the data that could be used to make a reliable medical diagnosis and treatment recommendation.
“Such a system would be error prone, and I don’t see that happening in Africa anytime soon,” she said.
Even though it is one of the simple processes, venipuncture – the process of selecting a blood vessel and inserting a needle to collect blood – cannot be totally replaced using digital health tools. According to Victoria, the unique blood vessel layout of each patient makes creating a digital health solution that will accurately probe for blood vessels and perfectly insert the needle, draw blood and seamlessly exit the blood vessel for all patients will be extremely hard.
“It is a simple process but one that needs skills and modifications from one patient to another. Some patients’ mid-cubital veins are very close to the surface of the skin, while for some, you may have to go much deeper to access the same blood vessels. These veins also vary in terms of size and fidelity. For some patients, they have very prominent and strong veins while for some, similar veins are tiny and very fragile. So it’s not like we can say this is what works in every circumstance. Phlebotomists adapt their skills on a per patient basis,” she said.
But she noted that there would continue to be more innovations in phlebotomy and diagnoses – even in the collection of blood, but the fact that individuals are different in their blood vessel architecture would make it extremely difficult to replace professionals who perform venipuncture.
Virtualization will not satisfactorily replace physical consultation
Telemedicine is growing in popularity in Africa, but respondents believe the benefits of telemedicine and other virtual medicine approaches will continue to be less effective when compared to direct (unaided) medical consultations.
There are attempts to allow healthcare professionals to reach patients via phone calls, Skype, and others. While these are useful in resource-limited areas that don’t have adequately qualified healthcare professionals, respondents believe they will not be satisfactorily useful in medical facilities.
“We will still prefer to see the patient one-on-one than relying on telephone or video to make medical judgments. There are procedures that you have to touch the patient in a particular manner to be able to really know what the problem is and the best way to deal with it. Until there is a technology that can convincingly and accurately relay beyond voice and video, doctors in this part of the world will continue to choose seeing patients physically to making life-dependent judgments, rather than from behind a computer screen,” she said.
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.