Scaling Up Public-Private Support for Digital Health Divide in Africa

African digital health technology

Digital technology initiatives are growing fast in all aspects of human endeavour with many calling that it be deployed to address key healthcare issues in Africa. At present, few African countries have made some strides in this direction. A good example is Rwanda that has more than 10 years of experience in digital health practices.

GSMA Intelligence reported that as of 2015, Rwanda had achieved 96 per cent of health facilities connected to the internet; 27 per cent of hospitals using telemedicine; and nearly 200,000 patients tracked using RapidSMS (a mobile solution that tracks the first 1,000 days of life, helping prevent deaths among mothers and newborns).

Indeed, Digital innovation is vital for the advancement of African economies and health services, but to make this possible, certain brick walls need to be removed. This was the consensus amongst high-level global and African health experts who came together for online discussions held recently and co-hosted by the Africa Health Alliance (AHA) and USA Healthcare Alliance (USAHA) on promoting healthcare infrastructure and bridging the digital divide in Africa.

The meeting was celebrated by BroadReach Corporation through African Press Organization. The Global Chief Medical Officer at Microsoft, Dr.David Rhew, was quoted to have said, “Technology has the power to improve health outcomes, specifically access to care, quality of care, and patient and provider experience, so that wastage can be removed and efficiency can improve.”

He further submitted that one of the most recent innovations is artificial intelligence (AI) powered “COVID-bot” to help triage patients. Triage is the process of prioritizing treatments of patients based on the severity of the condition. The Microsoft boss noticed however that they always came up against the same challenges of lack of streamlined communications and broadband access.

Other major challenges discussed included lacking broadband infrastructure, a shortage of digitised data for actionable systemic insights, and inadequate long-term investing and political support for innovative health technologies from Africa.

At the meeting, it was agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic presented a rare window of opportunity for Africa’s health sector to come to terms with many long-time systemic challenges and to use the newfound momentum to mobilize vital role players, technology, available funding, and improved ways of working to solve more than just the pandemic for long term benefit. For instance, the case of South Africa that conducted extensive door-to-door screening campaigns at the beginning of the pandemic to find out people’s ages and comorbidities was mentioned. During the campaigns, BroadReach Corporation in partnership with provincial governments of South Africa gathered screening data including valuable granular details such as the geolocation, household information, and categorisation of patients.

BroadReach Group co-founder, Dr. Ernest Darkoh, explained that the challenge was that scalable solutions were not always in place at a broader systemic level for decision-makers to use this data effectively.

On his part, the Chairman and Founder of Access Mobile International, Kaakpema “KP” Yelpaala, said, “for many African innovators there is no path to market and the prospect of being contracted by the government is unrealistic – they can’t even have those conversations with their governments to support their technology”. He advised that Africa needs to elevate the conversation back to the political will level, for example, to make decisions such as, ‘let us get every clinic connected to the grid for electricity and WiFi.’ There are some big rocks we need to move. Let us run the health system the same way we do the central banks: independent of the election cycle or which political party is in power, on a ten-year time frame to get things done.

He also believed another key solution for the divide was to bring on board “investors with a long-term view on returns” as he maintained further that digital innovation is going to be one of the key pathways to how African economies and health services are going to be transformed. And to him, this however could be made possible through strong public-private partnerships and investment in the already impressive digital innovation that exists in Africa.