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How technology can improve Healthcare in sub-Saharan Africa

by Milicent Atieno
medical technology

Did you know that 13% of the world’s population lives in sub-Saharan Africa? That is not such a big number, comparatively speaking, right? Again, do you know that 24% of the global disease burden falls in this region, yet sub-Saharan Africa has only 2% of the doctors in the world?

So what is the cause of all these? It is somewhat straightforward, there very little investment in healthcare services across the sub-Saharan Africa. Experts put the investment shortage estimates at somewhere between $25-$30 billion to satisfy the demand for healthcare services in the region.

However, with digital technology, provision of healthcare services can go a long way, with significantly reduced costs. Digital solutions can bolster healthcare access and services across Africa at a fraction of the cost.

Already, most countries across the sub-Saharan Africa have a high level of mobile penetration (85%), while internet penetration is rising. Already some African countries have come up with innovative ways they can leverage on mobile phones and the internet to mitigate shortages in the healthcare service delivery.

Take South Africa, for instance, where digital healthcare service delivery is increasing with the uptake of standalone mobile health, where smartphone-powered mobile clinics attend to patients. There is a messaging app in the South African market dubbed MomConnect, which already has 465,703 users.

Mobile technologies and the internet easily solves the problems of geographical barriers and low resources. Thereby taking healthcare services to the million would have otherwise lacked medical attention. In the old days, patients would have to travel long-distances (sometimes on foot) to get to a clinic. Even then, they could find a doctor at the hospital, but there are no medicines available. Uganda has come up with a mobile health system dubbed mTRAC used by pharmacists to report on the medicine stocks from around the country. This way, the health centre medicine inventory can be better managed to avoid incidences where there are no drugs in stock.

Another excellent example of how digital technology can be used in the medical field is during the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The BBC used the popular messaging app WhatsApp to spread information about the disease, how to avoid it, symptoms, how to contain it, and how to seek medical attention. WhatsApp was also used by family members to talk to their kin under quarantine.

Ghana has a call centre set up by the Novartis Foundation, where patients can make phone calls to a consultation centre, which then puts them through to doctors and specialists with the right experience. The doctors and health specialist could be several hundred or thousands miles away, but the consultation centre ensures users can get connected to a specialist at any time during the day every day. It would mean the consultation centre connects the users to doctors spread out in different time zones.

There is no doubt that access to the internet and proliferation of internet-enabled devices has gone a long way in mitigating the problems faced by the health sector in sub-Saharan Africa. However, these systems are only as effective as the quality of health practitioners using them to reach the patients.

Evidently, there is a shortage of skilled and experienced doctors in sub-Saharan Africa. Though technology makes it possible for a single doctor to reach many patients conveniently, there is still need for more investments towards more doctors training and experience acquisition to make the use of technology even more useful.

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