Getting healthcare online in Africa

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The accessibility of healthcare has had a major boost from technology in the last ten years with the development of communication systems that can deliver relevant information to practitioners with minimum fuss. Nowhere is this as important as in Africa, where there is a large gap in healthcare service provision between rural and urban areas and there is a major shortage of qualified healthcare professionals on hand. Medical systems being put in place now are making huge differences across the continent and there is a lot of potential for innovation, both in private business and as part of governmental policy and national strategy. eLearning Africa will look at this surge in healthcare systems and how these technologies are helping bring healthcare and medical training to even the remotest parts of Africa.

By Claire Adamson

UNESCO’s Millennium Development Goals set out guidelines at the turn of the century that aim toward a healthier and more stable world by 2015. Access to information provided by new communication and information technologies is already helping progress significantly. This is especially true in Africa where harsh climates, political instability and a lack of infrastructure have severely challenged local healthcare systems. Practitioners who have access to training, resources and patient information through new information delivery systems are able to make timely and informed decisions about individual patients. These systems also promote responsibility and accountability through transparency, as all patient interactions can be tracked and recorded. Patient records also promote individual health awareness and help patients to take an interest in their own personal healthcare.

One such system is Réseau en Afrique Francophone pour la Télémédecine (RAFT). The project, put in place by Geneva University Hospital and the Health on the Net Foundation, reaches 13 different African countries and aims to facilitate collaboration between healthcare institutions via tele-teaching and tele-consultation. The platform encourages knowledge sharing and has had great success in reaching more rural parts of the countries it is active in. Another successful initiative is SmartCare, an Electronic Health Record (HER) system in place in Zambia, Ethiopia and South Africa that provides a cost effective healthcare system designed to work with paper clinics in areas with little infrastructure.

Given the prevalence of mobile technology in Africa and the huge proportion of Africans connected via mobile, much is being made of the potential for mobile health initiatives and strategies that use text messaging and calling as a portal to health systems and structures. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), activity surrounding mobile health across the world has had a sudden upsurge in popularity in the last couple of years. Africa is still falling behind the rest of the world in terms of the implementation of mobile health strategy across the continent, but governments and businesses are beginning to explore and research potential applications of mobile health in reducing geographical and infrastructural barriers.

Many African countries have already implemented nationwide policies or strategies to improve healthcare systems using technology. Because change is happening at a governmental level, eHealth strategies can be fully integrated with local needs and know-how. The Department of Health in South Africa is taking an incremental approach to creating effective eHealth systems, building on infrastructure that is already there and co-ordinating that across the country. They are also looking at integrating massive mobile health initiatives into their policy, and exploring this technology more thoroughly. Several successful mobile health initiatives have already been undertaken in the country, including an innovative health surveillance system put in place by WHO during the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Ghana is also working toward strengthening its weak healthcare system with eHealth initiatives. In order to reduce disease and mortality, improve quality of life and prevent inequality in healthcare systems across Ghana, the Ministry of Health is offering funding and encouragement to local solution providers, as well as streamlining strategy across the country and looking at new and affordable technologies that will integrate seamlessly with processes already in place.

Radio is also proving an effective communication device for governments and health initiatives, especially in rural areas that lack in infrastructure. Under the Mango Tree is a Ugandan radio project that airs community discussions regarding health policies and solutions. Using this community discussion approach, the shows were able to drawn upon the influence of opinion leaders and to identify and dispel common myths and misconceptions associated with health in Uganda. FM radio is one of the most important communication mediums in Uganda, and it was estimated that Under the Mango Tree reached some 5.7 million Ugandans.

The positive impact of eHealth technologies is not just limited to healthcare. Businesses and startups that are developing innovative information delivery systems are beginning to contribute significantly to local economies and are encouraging both local and international investment and interest in the sector. eHealth Africa, based in Nigeria, is building ICT systems and promoting them all over Africa. The company has been looking specifically at getting solutions to regions with challenging climates, an unreliable power supply and to people with little technical know-how while still utilising the knowledge and culture of local people.

MedAfrica is a mobile app created by Kenyan based startup Shimba Technologies to raise health awareness. Using lists of licensed medical practitioners, it helps to combat fraud and malpractice from unqualified scammers, which has been a big problem in the country. It also offers a self diagnosis tool, and helps users connect with local hospitals in their vicinity.

Through improved communication systems and governmental policy, effective and affordable healthcare in Africa is slowly spreading to even the remotest of areas, and the gap between rural and urban is slowly reducing. There is still a way to go to achieve the Millennium Development Goals but as long as development and investment are sustained, there is a real chance that healthcare in Africa will make a real change for the better.

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