Many years ago, a headache, general body weakness, and maybe a vomiting bout necessitated a visit to the roadside pharmacy. Typically, drugs got prescribed, and the patient recovered afterwards. Nowadays, people don’t need to either visit the roadside pharmacy or join the long queues often witnessed at primary health care centres.
If one is digitally literate and subscribed to a telehealth service, one can get an accurate diagnosis of a condition through various means, including phone calls, video chat, and secure messaging. It may not be a mainstream trend, but it’s on the path to being one.
Telehealth, also called telemedicine, may be transforming healthcare delivery in Africa today, but it isn’t exactly a new trend. The early use of technology for patient care in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) dates back to 1980. Each region has, at some point, experimented with the idea.
In West Africa, Nigeria, Gambia, and a few other countries, participated in what’s called the HealthNet project. Between 1980 and 1920, two East African nations, Kenya and Uganda, collaborated with various foreign agencies to launch a telehealth platform. In Southern Africa, South Africa and Mozambique successfully used technology for distance learning and virtual consultations between 2000 and 2001.
Despite these interesting historical facts, SSA’s healthcare remains inaccessible to many citizens. A 2022 study conducted by the World Health Organization found that the shortage of healthcare workers has played a significant role in SSA’s poor quality of patient care. According to the report, only Mauritius, Namibia, South Africa, and Seychelles have met the WHO’s health worker-to-population ratio. While Niger has a disappointing ratio of 0.25 health workers per 1,000 people, Seychelles has a ratio of 9.15 health workers per 1,000 people, making it the country with the most health workers.
How telehealth can improve healthcare delivery
A UNDP article argues that telemedicine is a cost-effective solution and eliminates the geographical barrier common in rural communities. Regarding geographical limitations, Kenya recently shared plans for airlifting medical supplies to counties with deplorable road networks. That’s just another instance where technology is driving positive change.
But when it comes to telehealth in Africa, how exactly are healthcare practitioners and the industry at large benefiting from it? Perhaps the most relevant use case of telehealth is the potential to reach more people with adequate care. The WHO report from before notes that Africa’s existing deficit of health workers could hit 6.1 million by 2030. With limited personnel, the traditional healthcare system can’t possibly tackle issues like infant mortality or vaccination.
With telemedicine, patients, especially those in remote locations, can get medical advice on both non-critical and critical conditions. Telehealth can also reduce the rate of missed doctors’ appointments due to transport costs. As mentioned, people in many rural communities have to commute far distances to see a physician. While these areas may have primary healthcare facilities, most of these centres are ill-equipped and understaffed. This story documents the struggles of a government-owned healthcare facility. What’s more, patients suffer similar fates at other locations.
How effective is the solution?
Technext spoke with Art Cooksey, CEO and Founder of Let’s Talk Interactive (LTI), to learn about his platform’s efforts to widen access to healthcare in Kenya through technology. While their solution can integrate patient records, facilitate remote health check-ups through digital biomarkers for blood pressure, and perform other things, he notes that data storage and low internet bandwidth are among their major challenges.
However, he said that the recent entry of Starlink would improve internet penetration, though one wonders if the average Kenyan can afford the hardware and monthly subscription costs (Sh89,000 and Sh6,500). Furthermore, Cooksey stated that LTI would collaborate with Amazon Web Services to utilize the latter’s cloud storage infrastructure to navigate the data storage challenge.
Curious to get a first-hand account from a telehealth user, Technext interviewed Dennis, who’s subscribed to one in Nigeria. When asked about his experience so far, he believes more can be done to optimize his user experience. “I chat with the physician regularly via a mobile application, and while this offers some level of convenience, I find that I’m always referred to a hospital or pharmacy that’s far from where I live.”
Essentially, he believes the platform isn’t offering last-mile patient care. For instance, if he suffered from a chronic condition that prevented him from walking, how would he get drugs from a hospital or pharmacy many miles away? Perhaps if the platform partnered with an online pharmacy to deliver medication to the user’s doorstep, Dennis may alter his opinion.
Another aspect of telemedicine that deserves attention is regulation. When asked if Kenyan authorities licensed his platform, LTI’s founder said that his company was already on the path to getting approved.
What to expect from the government regarding support for telehealth
Paul Christie, CEO and Co-Founder of Tachmed, believes that much is expected of the government. The first step, he recommends, is that the health ministry takes appropriate steps to “educate the population about the benefits of regularly testing their health, in addition to allowing data to be securely accessed by healthcare professionals to inform on both risk and treatments required. Of course, robust data regulation must accompany this.”
He also expects the government to build its virtual healthcare system to complement the efforts of private individuals. He adds that a public-private partnership will “help propel telehealth.”
To complement the above suggestions, Cooksey of LTI feels the government should introduce a subsidy to enable citizens, especially those in low-income communities, to access telehealth platforms. While striving to digitize patient care, propel should have the financial means to enjoy these cutting-edge solutions.
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