Though digital health is on the rise in Africa, a variety of factors still need to be addressed in order to turn potential into reality.
Several strategies have been, and are being deployed by various African countries to improve the quality of healthcare services—especially in the area of increasing access at the primary levels. These approaches have had varying levels of success. But one of the most effective means of healthcare delivery in various parts of the world, and especially in Africa, is the deployment of digital health tools.
A report by the United Nations-hosted mHealth Alliance revealed that Africa is home to more mHealth projects than anywhere else in the world.
This trend was further supported recently when USAID announced a partnership with Orange, a telecoms company, to boost mhealth innovations across Africa.
These and other developments are quite expected, considering the unique health needs of Africa and the continent’s highly impressive mobile phone penetration rate that continues to soar.
These factors have made available an increasing number of mhealth solutions that could be deployed on the continent, some of which are already reshaping healthcare delivery.
E-health is on the rise in Africa, and is supported by the African Development Bank’s developmental agenda. This trend is in contrast to past opinions that said African e-health was moving in the wrong direction.
However, there are individual practitioners who feel that progress is still lagging, and much needs to be done in order to make the most of the potential that digital health offers here.
Kemi Adeleye is a nurse practicing in one of Nigeria’s major tertiary health facilities. She told me that even though she personally uses some digital health apps on her Android-based smartphone to track exercise, diet and other health-related activities—her hospital does not allow its employees to recommend or deploy such tools in patient care.
“There are laid down protocols, laws and standard procedures on what we are expected to do in each circumstance that we deal with in the hospital and deviation from that would spell doom for the professional if something goes wrong,” she said.
According to Adeleye, the fear of violating Nigeria’s tort law has compelled healthcare professionals to be reluctant in recommending new innovations that are not in the standard protocols.
Corroborating the nurse’s opinion, Dr. Sam Obilo, a public health expert who has practiced in several African countries—including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Sierra Leone and Botswana—told me that concerted efforts should be made by health ministries of various governments in Africa to encourage hospitals and professional councils regulating various health professions to introduce digital health solutions as options that their employees and members could recommend.
“There is no allowance for digital health solutions whatsoever in the acts of most health councils in Africa and this has made it extremely difficult for healthcare providers to recommend or utilize them in their medical practice. But if the boards and councils could be encouraged to get actively involved, phenomenal results could be achieved,” he said.
Furthermore, he enjoined medical training institutions across Africa to incorporate digital health education into their curriculums.
“All that they do in med schools is to learn new procedures and drugs; the tools and other aspects are fairly the same as they were in the past when digital health solutions were non-existing or rudimentary. The training curricula need to be upgraded, students need to be exposed to digital health so that they can easily figure out how, when and where to apply them,” he said.
Africans—especially those who usually seek care at primary healthcare centers—could greatly benefit from several digital health innovations that simplify procedures and reduce costs. For instance, individuals with eye problems could be easily diagnosed using Peek Vision, that operates using just a mobile app and lens adapter for testing eyes, whether in a clinic or in the comfort of a patient’s home.
There are many others that could immensely enhance healthcare delivery in Africa by putting the tools in the hands of the patients and/or arming professionals with upwardly mobile, simpler, and cheaper tools.
But there is a great need for proper localization, regulation, standardization and collaboration in product development.
“In Africa, there currently exists a wide gap between the developers of digital health solutions and the medical sector. Solutions are developed mostly without involving the professionals, who in turn are often uncomfortable to rely entirely on these solutions – even though some of them are personally using them. With an ecosystem that involves the developers and end-users in development, validation and regulation, the future of digital health in Africa would become brighter,” Chris Alagboso, COO of HealthNewsNG.com told me.
Digital health is certainly on the rise in Africa, offering effective and accessible solutions to improve care. However, as in many regions across the world, a variety of factors still need to be addressed in order to turn potential into reality.
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.