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Mobile revolution drives telemedicine in Africa

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There have been a few waves that have managed to sweep through an entire continent, creating effects more profound than what is currently unfolding in the sub-Saharan African mobile communications space – and this revolution could have a profound benefit for healthcare across the region.

In the last 10 years alone, close to 400-million Africans have acquired mobile phones, representing phenomenal growth from a subscriber base of 80-million in 2001. Telecoms companies have leveraged this substantial level of “cellular“ adoption by investing aggressively in infrastructure, and advancing mobile services and capabilities.
This technological wave has brought with it new applications in healthcare and, according to the latest research by Frost & Sullivan, health systems in Africa are uniquely positioned to benefit from this mobile revolution.
Information and communication technologies (ICT) have the potential to help poor countries strengthen their health systems and move towards attaining the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), according to the research company.
“Governments in Africa have launched various telemedicine initiatives aimed at extending health services provision,” comments Frost & Sullivan healthcare industry analyst Ishe Zingoni. Telemedicine is essentially the use of ICT to provide health services when the medical professional and patient are separated by distance.
“A classic example is that of a specialist located in an urban hospital treating a patient at a distant clinic via e-mail or video conferencing. Telemedicine in this form represents the perfect solution to Africa’s battles with persistent shortage of qualified health professionals,” Zingoni says.
The World Health Organisation recommendation for the number of doctors per 100 000 patients is 166, while more than half of all African countries do not exceed 15 doctors per 100 000 patients. The gravity of this human resource challenge is further underlined by the unequal distribution of this stock of doctors between urban and rural areas.
Mobile penetration in sub-Saharan Africa now stands at 49 subscribers per 100 inhabitants, compared to fixed-line penetration of only 16 phone lines per 100 inhabitants. This demonstrates how Africa has managed to leapfrog the telephone-line stage of development, and dive straight into mobile technologies.
The most important implication for suppliers of mobile healthcare solutions is that market access will be easier in Africa than in developed countries due to less stringent, and underdeveloped, regulatory environments.
According to Frost & Sullivan, the mobile phone platform has unlocked unprecedented opportunities for the provision of services to millions of Africans who previously had no access to technology and were virtually unreachable. “The mobile phone is being leveraged to provide services at less than 25% of the cost of traditional healthcare delivery models,” says Zingoni.
Another healthcare area that has emerged at the forefront of harnessing the power of the internet is in drug clinical trials. Substantial improvements in broadband and Internet sectors have aided in strengthening Africa’s clinical trial capacity and electronic data capturing (eDC) deployment.
“Although traditionally clinical trials have been conducted in wealthy nations, developing countries now possess the necessary strategic and operational cost advantages,” explains Frost & Sullivan’s healthcare research analyst Ryan Lobban.
South Africa’s regulatory framework and comparatively high level of infrastructure entails that it now accounts for 49% of clinical trials hosted in Africa, although other countries are now emerging as viable locations, notably those in East Africa.
In South Africa, as the government prepares to roll-out its National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme in 2012, there has been renewed focus on strengthening the primary healthcare model in order to contain healthcare costs. It is in this context that the government has identified telemedicine as a critical pillar of its envisaged healthcare model.
Frost & Sullivan expects telemedicine platforms in the public sector to grow significantly in the medium to long term, with the further extension of the NHI.