CAROLINE MBINDYO, SAM MWANGI and ALICE KAMPENGELE
FOR years now, the global technology community has touted Africa as the next frontier for growth, with tech hubs in Nairobi, Lagos, Cairo, and Cape Town attracting Silicon Valley investors and developing home-grown innovations. With a ready market for digital technologies created by the ubiquity of the mobile phone, investment in internet connectivity, and Africa’s young, educated and tech-savvy population, the continent should be championing digital transformation of health systems.
Africa faces a formidable task in eradicating endemic diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV alongside the growing burden of non-communicable diseases on the continent, which is higher than the global average. With only 1.55 doctors per 1,000 people, according to World Health Organisation, digital health may offer most efficient means of scaling access to quality health services. While digital technologies are not a panacea for Africa’s relatively weak health systems, innovation in digital health can address high financial costs of delivering health care and increase the number of people in contact with the formal health system.
These technologies may offer a more efficient approach to responding to challenges of overburdened health workers and high burden of disease on the continent. Technologies such as the internet of things and virtual care, for example, can bring doctors into patients’ homes, cutting transport costs, reducing the need for referrals to major hospitals and the number of consultations needed.
Tele-health can also support self management of care so that patient care is not solely reliant on health professionals. E pharmacy would allow patients to receive their medications at home, cutting the need to travel to multiple pharmacies to fulfil prescriptions. This has been particularly beneficial for individuals in rural or remote areas who would otherwise have limited access to health care services.
Data captured during these digital health transactions can be stored and shared across the health ecosystem, creating a continuum of care to enhance health outcomes. This can be achieved by improving medical diagnosis, data riven treatment decisions, digital therapeutics, self-management of care, as well as creating more evidence-based knowledge. These factors are especially critical on a continent where more people have access to mobile phones than to clean water and basic sanitation.
Digital health is no longer about leveraging digital tools in the health sector, but how we can transform health services in a digital world. Young Africans are not just consumers of these innovations, but also creators. They bring with them a unique perspective and understanding of digital technologies and their potential to revolutionise the health care industry.
From solar-powered hearing aids to cloud-based hospitals, to improving access to mental health in Africa, creative start-ups across the continent are developing disruptive digital health solutions. However, increasing innovation in digital health and creating a ready market for these innovations is dependent on our ability to leverage Africa’s youth demographic dividend and narrow the digital and financing divide. The narrowing of digital and financing divide is between urban and rural youth, and between African youth and their counterparts from high-income countries.
Digital technology has the power to fundamentally change health outcomes of the continent’s population. With an estimated 70 percent of its 1.2 billion population under the age of 30, Africa’s youth present an enormous opportunity for the continent to lead the way in digital health innovations. They are hungry to participate in re imagining health in Africa as innovators, leaders, and adopters of technology. However, despite the wide access to mobile connectivity, 60 percent of African adolescents are not connected to the internet, compared to four percent of those in Europe. Allowing this digital divide to persist perpetuates inequities that bar those who lack digital skills or access to the internet from harnessing opportunities in health, education, commerce, and beyond. With so much at stake, African youth need to take a front seat in the digital transformation of the continent and use their bargaining power to advocate for more resilient health systems.
Africa is home to seven of the world’s fastest-growing economies. This makes the region a fertile ground for innovative market based solutions. Youth-led digital transformation of health systems has potential to drive and deliver universal health coverage to Africa. Moreover, the involvement of youth in development of health technologies leads to their increased participation in the health sector, creating opportunities for growth and innovation. Yet, despite this promising outlook, health innovators in Africa face numerous challenges in getting their innovations to scale. Some analysis suggests that local innovators in Africa are less likely to be funded despite annual growth in venture capital investments on the continent. There is an urgent need for governments and other duty bearers to act and make funding and financing mechanisms accessible to young African innovators, to include not just capital, but also investments in infrastructure, human capital, and science and technology.
There is also need to build the right regulatory environment for piloting innovations and develop conducive policies related to regional cooperation and ease of doing business. Such investment would also address inequalities in health to ensure a more inclusive approach to the design and delivery of health care – one that considers the heterogeneous nature of the population and offers care that is responsive to the needs of communities and individuals. It is estimated that in just seven years, 40 percent of the world’s youth will be in Africa. Imagine what we could achieve if we empowered them to lead the continent’s digital health transformation. Conversations on driving youth led digital transformations in Africa will be front and centre at the Africa Health Agenda International Conference, which will take place from March 5 to 8 in Kigali, Rwanda.
The authors are Caroline Mbindyo, Amref Health Innovations CEO; Sam Mwangi, Amref Health Africa head of digital transformation; and Alice Kampengele, Amref Health (Zambia) programme