The Silver Lining of Digital Technologies in African Healthcare

Technological innovation and the internet are now steering society- as a ubiquitous fulcrum for economic and social development. The continued proliferation of innovative solutions and their involvement in our everyday lives create paradigmatic changes that allow new opportunities by mechanizing, augmenting, and exploring potential among traditional structures and their processes. Different countries in Africa have been adopting and using technologies for sustainable development. This article provides a broad vision of the potential that these innovative solutions have to solve different issues in the African healthcare sector and also explores systems in operation and the vision for the future in terms of collaboration among stakeholders.  

Along with various others, Health is one sector where technological innovation has the potential to contribute to the design of more sophisticated means to provide a more efficient and comprehensive service cycle and more. In alignment with the existence of essential resources, the ICT infrastructure and network expansion, together with exponential growth in mobile phone users allow the implementation of emerging technologies for epidemiological surveillance that covers a wide range of rural and remote areas. The World Bank and African Development Bank estimate that there are more than 650 million mobile phone users in Africa, and efforts are currently in the process towards affordable, and good quality internet access by 2030.

The adoption of technology in healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic, special for contact tracing and disease control and monitoring has spotlighted the transformative power of adopting emerging healthcare technologies. In this way, the evidence-based knowledge gained from the application of these technologies, not only across international borders but also within the African continent, has been substantial. 

Representation of a complex healthcare ecosystem with multiple stakeholders by Digital Transformation in Healthcare – Courtesy photo 

Adaptability is an intrinsic trait of the healthcare industry, where the seamless fusion of foundational and state-of-the-art resources is an ongoing pursuit to elevate service processes, improve quality, and minimize expenses. Emerging technologies such as telemedicine, Artificial Intelligence, Drones, etc., hold the potential to bridge health disparities, diminish gender gaps, and shield the most vulnerable populations, given that health is significantly influenced by various intersectoral factors.

This vision of a digital health revolution is supported by Jean Philbert Nsengimana Africa CDC’s Chief Digital Advisor he stated that “Africa’s growing digital native population combined with increased penetration of digital technologies and literacy present a historic opportunity to rethink how health interventions are designed and delivered. We believe that the combined expertise and resources from Member States, the African Union, Development Partners, and local digital health ecosystems are enough to usher a digital health revolution with an impact that is comparable to how mobile payments revolutionized financial inclusion,”. In the Digital Transformation Strategy document, Africa CDC has stated its commitment to supporting Member States in harnessing the potential of digital health to leapfrog some of the barriers affecting healthcare and public health while becoming a digital-savvy organization.

Many African countries have been leading this digital health revolution with the adoption of different types of innovative solutions such as telemedicine, drones, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, wearables, and information management, offering effective and affordable solutions with superior performance compared to traditional methods with also the ability to yield remarkable results within compressed timelines and at reduced costs.

Drones have been used as an alternative solution for the transport of medical materials such as medicine, vaccines, and administrative information to remote areas. The characteristics of drones vary based on their type and intent and come in various sizes, forms, and levels of sophistication. The majority of today’s drones are designed to serve a purpose and equipped with remote sensing devices, propulsion mechanisms, airframes, cameras, ground-penetrating radar (navigation setup), direct measurement sensors, communication tools, and cargo capabilities.

During the pandemic, Ghana’s health service in partnership with Zipline, which already had experience using drones to deliver medical supplies in the country, was able to use these drones as part of its COVID-19 response. This helped supply almost two-thirds of the COVID-19 vaccines in Ghana that were one month away from expiration. This highlights the significant impact on commodity availability, supply chain performance, and health impact that drones can provide in healthcare. 

Drones have also been used before in Uganda providing a lifeline in delivering HIV medicines to other nearby islands inside the Kalangala district, which initially arrive on the mainland by boat, from Bufumira island to the far reaches of the district. They then are collected and transported to the needy areas.  The project has contributed to the upskilling of local community members to operate the drones.

Uganda starts using drones to supply medicine by – Courtesy photo

As drones progress to become essential for healthcare in Africa, the South African National Blood Service (SANBS) which collects and provides blood for transfusions in South Africa, has reported that it will begin using drones to transport blood. SABS claims the technology is quicker and less expensive than helicopters, which were previously used for blood transport. 

Similarly, another widely used technological method is telemedicine, which enables healthcare professionals to offer services from a distance using technological tools like video conferencing, monitoring systems, and mobile apps. Patients can conveniently access these services whenever they need to, eliminating the need to travel back and forth to hospitals. Healthcare experts say this emerging innovation has great potential for the African continent because most people live in rural areas, sometimes distant from healthcare facilities and this helps provide easy access to medical care and also helps to effectively remove some pressure from the current demand.

Telemedicine is the term used to describe the delivery of medical care and services through telecommunication technologies, which is rapidly transforming how we obtain healthcare services and diagnoses. 

In 2021, telemedicine experienced significant growth in Kenya following the approval of 20 hospitals by the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Council (KMPDC) to implement telemedicine services. This move was aimed at controlling the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Afyabora provides efficient healthcare to the growing population of underserved African communities especially, pregnant mothers and women. Patients can register online to connect with nearby doctors and hospitals, with the option to subscribe for monthly video healthcare consultations, gain full access, and schedule appointments using their mobile phones. 

Doctors register, receive patient appointments, and manage video consultations. There is also possible use by hospitals that can register, gain control over bookings, and match patients with trusted doctors from their centers. By providing reliable online healthcare services it enables patients to receive preventive and comprehensive care from qualified medical experts. During virtual sessions, doctors can review the symptoms you’ve experienced over time and make diagnoses based on your condition. They performed consultations on a broader range of issues and recommended prescriptions or advice on necessary laboratory tests, depending on the circumstances and the specific issues.

Different other projects involving telehealth technologies have been implemented in different African countries aiming to address various health issues. In order to provide reproductive healthcare services, M-TIBA in Kenya connects patients in rural areas with doctors and healthcare providers using mobile phones. Similarly, Imara Health in South Africa uses video conferencing to connect HIV-positive women with healthcare providers while LifeMD in Nigeria combines video conferencing, phone calls, and messaging to provide reproductive healthcare services to women trying to conceive.

Organizations such as Medcera, make software free to health institutions, from hospitals to labs, and from imaging centers to patients, to drive this redesign, which is going to be critical if AI systems are going to help improve lives. They also consider that the protection and security of Data are key foundations to catalyze the adoption of emerging technologies to ensure a transparent and protective healthcare service across African villages and cities.

According to Anja Duricic, technologies such as CareAI would be ground-breaking in Africa, as it disadvantage minorities. This AI-powered computing system which is anchored on blockchain can diagnose infectious diseases, such as malaria, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis. Just using a finger prick and a lab-on-a-chip, the machine within seconds can detect ailments and suggest medical assistance, or even give them a prescription to visit a pharmacy according to severity. 

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Amid the diverse landscapes of East Africa, where healthcare remains a critical cornerstone of well-being, a transformation is quietly unfolding. According to TECH EMERGE, currently, 17 innovators from across the globe and 11 East African private hospitals, primary care clinics, lab chains, pharma retailers, and insurers are conducting 20 TechEmerge pilots in Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia. TechEmerge Health East Africa was launched in January 2020 to strengthen healthcare services, improve patient outcomes, and build commercial relationships, and quickly expanded to also tackle some of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To continue unfolding the structural transformation in the health sector and reap the benefits, governments in collaboration with civil society, the technical community, and the private sector must work together towards the development of sets of mechanisms that promote the adoption of emerging technologies but also in policy or regulation using a human-centered approach that can ensure the governance of health data and technologies that protects the patients and different intervenient against violation of digital rights, discrimination, surveillance, data mining, data breach, and other issues that can damage public trust.

A multistakeholder model approach to discuss and implement these mechanisms and policies can allow the designing of efficient strategies or approaches to govern and regulate digital health by integrating new technologies in healthcare. This collaborative approach fosters the development of streamlined strategies to oversee and manage the convergence of emerging technologies in healthcare, ensuring the seamless integration of digital health initiatives. Notably, multistakeholderism will incorporate measures to safeguard health data from entry to the end empowering in this terms the crafting of efficient governance and regulatory frameworks and upholding the integrity and security of health information throughout its journey. 

Also taking into consideration that these new services intend to reach as many people as possible including the vulnerable and marginalized communities, and ensuring “no one is left behind”. In the meantime, it is important to increase digital literacy through engagement and outreach with a focus on the utilization of smart digital health technologies. 

Herman Ramos is a physicist, writer, and researcher focused on technology, energy, policy, climate change, health technologies, digital rights, cybersecurity, and internet governance. He works to anticipate and analyze future technological, political, social, and legal developments that impact the Internet governance ecosystem, human rights, digital transformation, and public health. He also works with different journalists and reporters and suggests topics for investigations and how to approach them in a way that fits into the specific context. 


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