Digital technologies can deliver better healthcare to sub-Saharan Africa. Here's how

A patient collects medicine at the Kogelo Dispensary in the U.S. President Barack Obama's ancestral village of Nyang'oma Kogelo, west of Kenya's capital Nairobi, July 16, 2015.

Image: REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais
Founder and Chairman of the Advisory Board, Quantum Global Group
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Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 13% of the world’s population, yet bears 24% of the global disease burden and has only 2% of the world’s doctors. The grim health situation is the result of a crisis in healthcare investments in the continent; with only 1% of the world’s health expenditure being used in sub-Saharan Africa.

It is estimated that $25–$30 billion in new investment will be needed in healthcare assets only, to meet the growing healthcare demands of sub-Saharan Africa. But there is one area of healthcare investments which has been less explored, which is the role digital solutions can have in boosting healthcare access in Africa.

Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have already achieved a high level of mobile penetration (85%) and internet penetration is also on the rise – mobile devices have become increasingly common and have been adopted in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa as a force for delivering better healthcare. South Africans are already being exposed to the digital health age by the increasing take-up of standalone mobile health (devices via increasing use of smartphones among clinicians and patients). The South African messaging platform MomConnect (a mobile messaging platform) saw 465,703 users adopt the service, demonstrating increasing maturity of digital participation.

The benefit of mobile technologies lies in access. Barriers like geographical distance and low resources, which have long prevented millions of people from getting the care they need, are much easier to overcome in the digital age. Indeed, there are countless ways in which technology can be deployed to improve healthcare access and delivery. For example, previously, patients would travel to far-off health clinics only to find that the medicines they needed were no longer in stock. Today, around 27,000 government health workers in Uganda use a mobile health system called mTRAC to report on medicine stocks across the country.

Another example is during the 2014-2015 Ebola crisis in West Africa. The WhatsApp system allowed the BBC to use its platform to share lifesaving health information with people in rural and quarantined areas, as well as ask questions, share stories and local solutions.

And in Ghana, the Novartis Foundation and its partners developed a telemedicine system to expand the reach of medical expertise. The system connects frontline health workers with a simple phone call to consultation centres in referral hospitals several hours away, where doctors and specialists with the right expertise are available around-the-clock.

Acknowledging a growing demand for improved healthcare services and products in Africa, Quantum Global Group has created a dedicated $400 million healthcare fund that will consider investment opportunities in private medical centres, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, medical equipment and medical support services across the continent.

In the global context, there is a slight temptation however to get caught up in what technology can do and forget about basic development principles of community-led solutions or consultation. The real impetus lies in the ability to transform these initiatives to achieve real scale and long-term sustainability using digital technologies given their capability to deliver healthcare to people living in rural parts of Africa.

The advent of technology, especially internet and internet-enabled services, has made it much easier for countries in Africa to provide healthcare services to its citizens. However, to effectively leverage technology in the sector, you need adequately trained doctors and nurses. Health care practitioners are in short supply across sub-Saharan Africa and they do not have appropriate training or access to continuing medical education. Upskilling the local healthcare workforce is therefore a major prerequisite for tangible private investment in primary healthcare.

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