Laying the groundwork to make high-tech medical solutions available in Africa

By James Hall

Analysis in brief: Africa’s healthcare system stands to hugely advance with newly available technologies; but existing energy and transportation infrastructures must be improved to allow these innovations. This article is based on information obtained by IOA while undertaking a comparative study on African nations’ competitive statuses for clients of IOA.

Healthcare has always been a difficult social welfare objective to achieve throughout Africa. In addition to underdeveloped healthcare facilities, a largely rural population lives in areas unconnected by effective electric and water infrastructures and not serviced by capable road networks. A healthcare delivery revolution beckons – new technologies that allow Africa to ‘leapfrog’ past standard development patterns by bringing care to individuals via the internet and home visits.

However, these new technologies do not exist in isolation. Basic infrastructure is still required to make practical the use of even the most elementary new high-tech medical solutions.

Where infrastructure already exists, health initiatives flourish

Although millions of Africans walk long distances to clinics, and are unable to pay hospital bills, they do own mobile phones. Roads may be in short supply, but mobile phone connectivity reaches even remote areas. For years, health advocates relied on community meetings to disseminate information, with hit or miss chances that their target individuals attended. However, the development of mobile-based healthcare delivery has reversed this trend. In Kenya for instance, the organisation AIDS No More has set up a nationwide texting hot-line where youth or any interested individual can send a health-related enquiry, and receive a text messaged answer. The individuals registered with the network receive information and relevant updates on AIDS prevention and treatment, including where to test and where anti-retroviral medication is available locally.

In Nigeria, the organisation HiDoctor offers free access to health information via texting, and callers can connect to a doctor who can, if need be, arrange for a patient to access needed care at a local facility. Medical consultations via mobile phones have been credited with saving many lives. Noting the use of such mobile phone platforms, governments are setting up information dissemination services to alert the public about medical emergencies, such as epidemic disease outbreaks.

Liberia’s Chief Jallah Lone Medical Centre in Gbarpolu County uses mobile phone connectivity to track patients’ medicine requirements, and to alert them to where medications are available in their vicinity. This eliminates costly and futile patient trips to hospitals where required medicines may not be in stock.

An example of the weekly messages sent to the Kenyan population as a campaign to reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS.
Image courtesy of Njambi Njugana, Kenyatta National Hospital

Where electricity is lacking, even small medical devices may be of no use

Africans watching BBC and CNN encounter advertisements announcing new medical technologies that bring clinics to people’s homes. For instance, an app that can test a person’s eyesight, or a non-invasive devise that can check a patient’s blood pressure, etc. These small devices can go anywhere, and are cost-efficient ways to provide diagnostic services like blood sugar measurements to assist diabetics. These new tools can also save thousands of hours in patient travels.

However, even the smallest electronic device requires a re-charge, sometimes several times a day if the device is put to heavy use. The lack of electrification that still sees large sections of Africa reliant on burning wood for cooking and paraffin for lighting is an obstacle to the utilisation of new technologies.

In the absence of connectivity to power grids, small solar-powered charging units are being made available by some organisations. These units are not a complete answer to the electricity dilemma – cloud cover and night-time make them inoperative. They do, however, offer a piecemeal solution.

Similarly, Kenya announced in July 2018 plans to launch a network of atmospheric balloons, whose solar-powered arrays will transmit internet broadband to remote parts of the country where web connectivity is now an unrealised dream. The balloon solution represents high-tech imagineering at its best. However, lack of power connectivity on the ground is a serious encumbrance. Without power, clinic computers cannot operate to receive health data, test results and medical information that Kenya’s healthcare system needs to transmit to remote areas.

Just a small selection of the many mobile technologies revolutionising Africa’s healthcare sector.
Image Courtesy of Chelsey Walsh, WWC Africa

Considering the value of Africa-specific medical technology

One of the most troubling failures of Africa’s healthcare system is reliance on expensive and sophisticated technology from foreign sources. While these machines of every description would never be deployed where they were built in Europe or the US without regular servicing and use by trained personnel, they are often shipped to Africa where neither is available. Such equipment usually gathers dust from the lack of skilled operators or breaks down from no regular servicing. Flying in a technician is impractical for cash-strapped medical facilities, which are unable to utilise pricey equipment that is often gifted by well-meaning donors.

To address this, more scientific and medical technology research, sponsored by African governments with the goal of inventing diagnostic and other equipment, tailor-made for their countries’ needs, is imperative. Matters like climate and power interruptions have to be factored into medical equipment design, as well as the ability to train operators locally.

The establishment of the African Biomedical Engineering Consortium by several African universities is one such attempt to achieve local solutions to Africa’s medical technology needs. The European Union is funding this capacity-building initiative, which is developing biomedical engineering programmes at universities with an eye on innovation. Graduates from this programme are able to work in any African country enrolled in the programme – establishing the type of continental qualification needed for multilateral medical cooperation.

While imaginative solutions are evolving with the aim of filling the healthcare gaps in Africa, water, roads and electricity infrastructure must still be established in order to achieve quality universal healthcare across the continent.

Key points:

  • New healthcare technologies allow Africa to ‘leapfrog’ past standard development patterns, using internet and smart phone apps
  • Healthcare awareness now reaches patients’ homes in remote areas through mobile text-messaged health motivators
  • Even small electronic devices require re-charges, making Africa’s electrification programmes essential to healthcare expansion
  • Adapting medical technologies to African requirements is a key step toward addressing the continent’s healthcare gape, with the African Biomedical Engineering Consortium being an important initiative toward this goal