How deep has Tech cut into Healthcare in Africa?

The story of healthcare delivery in Africa just like most stories on the continent is a pathetic one. The continent accounts for approximately a quarter of the world’s disease burden, yet has just 3 percent of its doctors and facilities are just as limp.

Stethoscope with financial on the desk.

Achieving universal health coverage – including access to essential health services, medicines and vaccines for all – is one of 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the world’s governments in 2015 and intended to be met by 2030.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized that much is still yet to be done by African governments to deliver healthcare to their citizens.

“The benefit allocation for health in many of the African countries does not represent (the) $80 per capita that the WHO recommends for a basic package of healthcare services – although a few countries are getting there,” WHO stated in 2015.

While trying to achieve basic healthcare, integrating technology into healthcare has also become priority for most governments. A recent article by Accenture, entitled ‘Top three healthcare technology trends: Big, Personal, Social’, suggests that the penetration of Internet access, mobile technologies and social networks collectively offer a global future in which it is possible to deliver highly personalized care without necessarily having to do it in person or even with a doctor.

No other country is witnessing mobile phone penetration as Africa. According to the World Bank, Africa’s mobile phone market has expanded to become larger than the European Union or the United States, with around 650 million subscribers.

Increased mobile phone connectivity on the continent is creating streams of opportunities, which are being embraced on a remarkable scale.

The WHO plans to team up with the International Telecommunication Union and African governments to support the large-scale adoption of “eHealth” services. In South Africa, the Department of Health has already created a policy document outlining an ‘eHealth Strategy’ focused on improving patient information and technology systems.

An eHealth Strategy would run the gamut of how to work with electronic patient record and management systems including electronic patient booking systems; notification of lab results; health information messaging platforms; population health databases such as those for breast screening, vaccination, notifiable diseases; and, use of everyday platforms, like WhatsApp, for patient communication and patient education.

While most African countries have universal health coverage as a goal in their health strategies, progress in implementing these has been slow or not even initiated yet as is the case for basically every infrastructural project in the region.

Delivery of basic healthcare is something far from being realized in Africa; a large portion of the continent’s population still lives below the poverty line and can barely afford food and clean water. Integrating technology into healthcare delivery is both a tougher ask for African governments and most of their citizens who can’t afford it.

eHealth for Africa is very possible and through private efforts it already exists, but in scants. Technology driven healthcare system for Africa will require enabling infrastructure to be in place. One side of the coin is telecommunication infrastructure which reasonably exists. The other is the availability of healthcare facilities and trained personnel. These two elements must be available for an effective eHealth Strategy.

Unfortunately there’s a dearth of healthcare infrastructure in most African countries which makes any robust eHealth Strategy still a mirage for the moment.

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