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Digital healthcare in Africa essential for saving lives - but electricity and knowledge shortfalls prove barriers

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Digital healthcare is a matter of survival for the continent, according to Tolagbe Martins, Head of Public Sector Growth at Helium Health.

The timely implementation of digital healthcare in Africa is a matter of survival for the continent, said Tolagbe Martins, Head of Public Sector Growth at Helium Health at Africa Health, drawing attention to pressing challenges.

“African healthcare is under significant pressure: there is brain drain, there is the effect of the pandemic, and there are justice and security issues across the continent that are making it unattractive - so another way to mitigate against these is by technology,” she explained during her talk Digitizing healthcare and its challenges on the third day of Africa Health 2021.

Yet conservative healthcare systems, along with a lack of computer literacy, a broken infrastructure and limited access to capital all present obstacles to digitising African health systems.

Reducing cost and error

Digital healthcare is a must, Martins highlighted, owing to human weakness: a digital healthcare system can reduce 48 percent of medical errors.

“We make mistakes, from writing prescriptions to putting wrong data against the wrong patient,” she acknowledged. 

According to some of the data she shared from her firm, 95.2 percent medical errors are on medication prescriptions; 83.9 percent of errors relate to laboratory investigations; and 69.4 percent of errors are associated with physician diagnoses.

“We need digital healthcare to save lives, whether by minimising error or by being able to make better decisions, or by reducing costs,” she said, explaining that digital healthcare allows for more efficient data aggregation and the management of information.

Energy, computer literacy and capital challenges

Healthcare systems are simultaneously embracing innovation while also remaining a staunch opponent, presenting a paradox. “This ‘push and pull’ will often present itself as a major challenge to adoption,” Martins said. 

This can partly be attributed to “fear” - discomfort stemming from illiteracy. 

Many healthcare professionals in Africa do not have intensive computer training or are unable to use software, Martins explained. For example, only 40 percent of healthcare professionals have used computers in Ghana and Tanzania. 

Infrastructure in Africa remains another challenge. 

Electricity is a component necessary for the adoption of digital health, yet Africa does not have much of it. More than 550 million people across the continent do not have regular access to electricity, including 60 percent of Sub-Saharan Africans, impacting cloud storage, networking, and indeed basic equipment purchases. 

“If you don't have power, why buy computers,” she asked. “I list all these challenges not to deter or frighten you, but to confront realities.”

Martins added that there was a lack of incentive to invest in digitising healthcare - and that is because the information or data where or how to invest is not available. Without relevant knowledge, there is no capital.

Africans make up 16 percent of the world population and carry 23 percent of global diseases. However, 78 percent of the healthcare investment in Africa is from the government, and it is not nearly enough to meet demand. 

“There is no incentive from the private sector or anyone else to invest,” she said.

Martins added that while there are challenges, there are also opportunities. 

A proper digital infrastructure that can be used on mobile phones is a priority. Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) or Health Management Information Systems (HMIS) need to run offline and be more mobile-friendly. Any effective EMR needs to look and feel intuitive. 

“We do all this with a sense of optimism that we are not only doing the right thing, but the profitable thing to do,” she said.

Register to attend Africa Health 2021 (25-29 October 2021) for free. 

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