Healthcare and Economic Growth in Africa: Digital Health

Ian MatthewsNews

The recently-released Healthcare and Economic Growth in Africa report included significant insight into the status of and opportunities for digital health interventions. The report provides an overview of the state of African health and health systems, with the aim of guiding investments and shaping narratives around health in Africa.

This article, the first in a planned series, will focus on how digital technology is helping to address health challenges and the skills gap for healthcare workers in Africa. This month’s issue of GBCHealth’s News & Opportunities newsletter includes additional in-depth examples and discussions of innovations in digital health.

Governments and the private sector have contributed to the infrastructure on which digital health interventions take place. Most countries in Eastern Africa such as Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda have invested significantly in broadband internet infrastructure since 2009 and have national broadband strategies. Also, they have made large-scale, state-funded infrastructure investments. Most of these initial initiatives are private-sector driven, for-profit models. The recently-signed African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) provides opportunities for larger markets and encourages more innovations in healthcare.

Opportunities in digital health

Digital health is increasingly employed—in combination with tools that build capacity and address the quality of care—to improve health systems and the efficient use of resources. When combined, these approaches can reduce health disparities and improve patient care.

Since the early 2000s, Africa has witnessed a growing number of new private investments in health innovation and product development with enormous potential for upscaling and greater impact. Major eHealth projects in Africa include the Telemedicine Network for Francophone African Countries (RAFT), HINARI Access to Research in Health Programme, ePortuguese Network and Pan-African e-Network Project.

Below are some recent examples of success stories for digital health in Africa.  As you’ll see, several countries are implementing telemedicine and eLearning projects; some of these use mobile phones to support the delivery of health care, awareness and education; remote data collection; remote monitoring and home care; communicating treatments to patients; and reporting and responding to disease outbreaks and emergencies.

Improving patient connectivity & communications:

  • Airtel Tanzania, the second largest telecommunications company in Tanzania, provides a free service that facilitates text messages about infant care to mothers and pregnant women.
  • The South African messaging platform MomConnect (a mobile messaging platform integrated with a national pregnancy registry and a help desk for questions and feedback) saw over 465,000 users adopt the service, demonstrating increasing maturity of digital participation.
  • 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.

Using technology to deliver & track essential commodities and services:

  • Rwanda is the first country in the world to use drone technology to deliver blood supplies thanks to a partnership between the Government of Rwanda and the California-based robotics company Zipline, Inc. The company’s partners include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Gavi Alliance, the UPS Foundation and Pfizer.
  • With public and private partners under the umbrella of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, the SMS for Life program, led by Novartis, was established to eliminate stockouts of anti-malarial drugs in public health facilities.
  • Today, around 27,000 government health workers in Uganda use a mobile health system called mTRAC to report on medicine stocks across the country.
  • In Ghana and across three continents, the social enterprise mPedigree uses a simple sticker on the packaging, which, when scratched with a fingernail or coin, reveals a numeric code that can be verified by SMS, providing a direct confirmation of the drug’s authenticity.

Improving healthcare capabilities:

  • Partners, including Novartis Foundation, the Ministries of Health and Communications, the National Health Insurance Agency and others, are scaling up an initial pilot telemedicine system in Ghana to connect frontline health workers with a simple phone call to consultation centers in referral hospitals several hours away, where doctors and specialists with the right expertise are available around the clock.
  • OpenMRS is a multi-institution, non-profit collaboration to develop and install medical record systems in concert with local users. The focus is on creating medical record systems and implementation networks that enable systems development and self-reliance within resource-constrained environments.

The real challenge lies in the ability to transform these initiatives to achieve real scale and long-term sustainability using digital technologies that can deliver healthcare to people living in remote areas of Africa.

Skills & tech training shortage

Addressing the shortage of skilled healthcare professionals in most countries in Africa, as well as their training and access to education, is a vital aspect to meeting health care challenges across the continent. Despite the success of digital health interventions to date, adequately trained doctors and nurses are needed in order to effectively leverage technology in the sector. Upskilling the local healthcare workforce is thus a major prerequisite to maximize the benefits from the innovations made possible with the spread of digital health technologies.

As demonstrated in the above chart, the healthcare sector in Africa faces a serious human resources crisis, which becomes more dire when viewed against the enormity of the health challenge facing the continent; Africa is the region of the world with the highest disease burden. These challenges present unique opportunities to leverage private sector innovations and technology, such as telemedicine and tele-radiology services, which can help governments to meet the demands in a unique way.

In addition, as highlighted in the report, countries need to address other factors impacting the potential of digital health interventions, including limited awareness about eHealth; lack of an enabling policy environment; weak leadership and coordination; weak ICT infrastructure and services; inadequate financial resources; and weak monitoring and evaluation systems.

Future Insight & Opportunities

The Healthcare and Economic Growth in Africa report was launched in February 2019 at the Africa Business: Health Forum in Addis Ababa, and provided the basis for much of the event discussion. It was here that private sector champions and their public sector counterparts gathered to chart a profitable course for turning the maxim – health is wealth – into practical, realistic results.  Nearly 350 delegates attended the forum, convened by GBCHealth, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and Aliko Dangote Foundation.

We will be taking a deep dive into this report over the coming months through GBCHealth’s News & Opportunities newsletter and webinars. In coming issues, we will focus on topics such as the link between healthcare and economic growth as well as specific opportunities for the private sector and government to work together to address these gaps and seize these opportunities.

 

This piece is extracted from “Healthcare and Economic Growth in Africa”, a joint publication of UNECA, GBCHealth and Aliko Dangote Foundation.

Ian MatthewsHealthcare and Economic Growth in Africa: Digital Health