Mobile technology fast-tracking Africa’s health landscape

Innovative approaches of doing businesses often prompted by ‘novel technologies’ have upended the roles of private and public sector in development as they offer a new design of healthcare opportunities in developing countries.

The elementary change is that the private sector has now overtaken the public sector in creating infrastructure, with the latter arriving afterwards to exploit the infrastructure for health purposes, according to Tore Godal, Norwegian prime minister’s special advisor on global health.

A UN report dubbed ‘Innovating for Every Woman, Every Child’, published by The Lancet, highlights business models that could harness new infrastructure to improve the health of women, children and infants in low-income countries.

In the report, mobile based technologies have become the profound game changer leading to phenomenal mobile apps for mHealth, a term used for the mobile-based practice of medicine and public health.

mHealth has now become a sub-segment of eHealth, the use of information and communication technology (ICT), such as computers, mobile phones, communications satellite and patient monitors for health services and information.

A recent study by international audit firm PwC showed that Africa is bound to witness tremendous growth in the health sector with the adoption of mHealth initiatives, with 68 percent of doctors recommending it. Some 75 percent of African countries have adopted mHealth. Examples include the Mobile Doctors Network, which focuses on improving communication between doctors in Ghana by giving them free phone calls and text messages on mobile phones.

Others include D-Tree International in Zanzibar that offers health professionals easy-to-use mobile phones enabling them to screen, examine, counsel and treatment of patients, as well as offer safe and affordable meningitis vaccine called MenAfriVac, designed specially for Africa.

In Tanzania, a team of trained but non-physician health professional, equipped with cervical screening and treatment tools, use smartphones to take a photograph of the cervix that are afterwards sent to medical experts via SMS for proper examination and diagnosis of possible cancer cells.

Though mHealth has also finds applications in industrialized nations, it has as well emerged as largely applicable in developing countries, stemming from the speedy rise of mobile phone penetration in low-income nations.

Speaking to CNN, Dr Karen Yeates, of Queen’s University, Ontario, the principal investigator of The Kilimanjaro Cervical Screening Project, said: “That’s the beauty of it. For early grade cancers, those will be able to be treated right in the field, right in the rural area.”

Among other scenarios, the mobile technologies are eliminating the necessity for traditional infrastructure while making the healthcare more efficient.

Two things are however essential for deriving maximum benefits from these innovations. According to Godal, the two include is financial support — which can originate from multiple sources including donors governments and donors to measure impact.

The second relates to lack of knowledge on ways to implement these innovations, with traditional frame of mind in both sectors restraining their successful rollout.

“We need to build up a network of experts and institutions with knowledge about what constitutes sustainable solutions and what is required in a public–private partnership to make them sustainable,” Godal said.

Even as the UN report demonstrates successful rollouts, Godal commented that a similar report on failures should be made.

Godal further warned that mechanisms need to be implemented that can prevent the over-commodification of health and maintain healthcare as a fundamental human right.

“The private sector is now, much more than before, engaging in the poorest countries with [the] perspective of long-term investment and returns. We should accept that the private sector is built on profit and within reasonable limits that is something that we shouldn’t try to kill. We will need to think about potential side effects or watch for them so that we can take action,” he said.

The regulation of the sector rests with individual countries, although they need the backing of UN agencies, which might also play a fundamental role. For instance, WHO ‘prequalifies’ vaccines that the UNICEF afterwards procures as a possible model for regulations of other health innovations.

Posted in: Features

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