The biggest tech trend in Africa, and the one that is making the biggest impact on the everyday lives of people, is the rise of smartphones and feature phones. Africa has seen the fastest uptake of mobiles in the world and mobile subscribers are set to hit half a billion in the next five years, according to the GSMA, says Ahmed Simjee, executive smarter Planet, IBM, South Africa.
This statistic supports the fact that mobile technology is and will continue to be the most powerful communications platform in Africa. Driven by cheaper mobile devices and continued innovation in the mobile space, mobile technology has the power to and will transform the delivery of healthcare service into Africa.
The obstacles we face in Africa, however, are the infrastructural challenges that are hindering the adoption of consumer facing apps and limiting integration with local health systems. There is however a way to circumvent these.
By implementing apps internally, the responsibility of educating consumers and nurturing widespread adoption is integral. This aids in improving the citizens’ healthcare experience without needing their participation.
To adopt m-health solutions, the facilitation of Electronic Medical Records (EMR) systems need to be deployed. These systems enable health organisations to pull, analyse and share patient medical histories and ultimately integrate these records into mobile health apps.
Currently, most of Africa’s healthcare ecosystem encourages citizens to select a variety of doctors and specialists instead of one primary care physician. This makes the consolidation and ownership of medical information a challenging situation in this environment as information is not from one source, but from multiple sources.
Inward facing enterprise m-health apps, which improve the logistical and operational efficiency of healthcare solutions, are potentially an easier way to deliver mobile technology’s benefits to patients without having to tackle infrastructural transformation at this stage.
These initiatives improve access to medical supplies, track immunisations, and allow remote diagnostics the potential to transform the entire regional healthcare landscape, resulting in higher referrals, faster diagnoses and a dramatically improved patient experience.
Telehealth apps enable citizens in remote areas to access specialised health care professionals in real time. With the assistance of mobile diagnostics, health professionals are able to send test results from the field and outlying areas and have access to specialised healthcare professionals all over the world. This reduces the need for patients to travel hundreds of kilometres to visit a GP or a specialist.
Enterprise m-health apps have the capability to enable a “distributed” model of healthcare provision. Allowing healthcare field agents to consult with patients, collect the necessary information and relay it back to specialists to receive treatment recommendations.
Taking into account that South Africa has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world, mobile technology could change that and if leveraged correctly it can improve the quality of life and life expectance of its citizens.
In Zambia, the government partnered with IBM to deploy a mobile programme aimed at better managing the inventory and delivery of 200 life-saving prescription drugs. Staff from three local health facilities are now using mobile devices with barcode scanners to record stock and generate real-time views of supplies. For a country that sees around 100,000 deaths each year due to preventable and treatable diseases, the benefits of the mobile-based system are self-evident.
The solution allows workers to transfer supplies and identify stock trends. As a result gaps in the medical supply chain are avoided and citizens are guaranteed of having access to the medication they require.
With the use of enterprise m-health apps, health organisations and businesses can play a role in creating an open dialogue between the government and the people – particularly in times of crisis. A great example of this is an IBM driven mobile initiative in Sierra Leone that is enabling the citizens o to report Ebola-related issues and concerns via SMS or voice calls, creating a new channel to communicate their experiences directly to the government.
These apps help connect the dots in the event of a crisis, they act as an insurance policy against pandemics such as last year’s Ebola outbreak.
As much as these apps improve agility, efficiency and regional coverage, these systems need to be installed and employees trained up before they are effective.
Enterprise m-health apps offer a way around the lack of physical health services, but can by no means function as a replacement for basic health infrastructure. M-health disruption, including the ability of health professionals to monitor patients, whenever, wherever, requires funding to provide the right automated, digital infrastructure to hospitals. This is a long and costly process, however forerunners in the Middle East have proved that this can be done, at least in small stages.
Until the infrastructure challenges can be overcome, hospitals and other health entities should look to build-in enterprise m-health apps to begin transforming their back-end processes and start taking quality healthcare solutions from the few to the many.