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How the right policies can unleash digital innovation in African healthcare

Article-How the right policies can unleash digital innovation in African healthcare

Identifying pandemic constraints, Africa Health 2021 speakers called for policy frameworks addressing innovation and data, and urged improved government engagement.

Africa was impacted by the pandemic in part because of healthcare system constraints, according to Africa Health 2021 speakers, who believe can be addressed by bringing stakeholders together and introducing stronger public policies. 

“We have been terribly exposed [as a continent] in under-investment,” said Dr Ntuthuko Bhengu, founder of South Africa-based digital platform Alchemy Health Technologies, chairing a panel covering Healthcare innovation post-pandemic on the fourth day of Africa Health 2021.

Dr Bhengu remarked that Africa’s governments and authorities were not entirely at fault for the continent’s pandemic shortcomings, however.

“All of us are to blame. While the deadly conspiracy theories did not help, there was also – more significantly -  corruption, which had affected PPE supplies,” he explained. 

Egbe Osifo-Dawodu, founding partner, Anadach Consulting Group, said that it was critical for government ministers to ready the African continent for another pandemic.

“When you have a pandemic it's not a health issue alone,” she said, adding that all of government should be handling it as opposed to a single department alone. Countries handling it best, for example Morocco, approached it strategically. 

Furthermore, Dr Osifo-Dawodu continued, Health Ministers ought to look at all resources available in public, private and NGO sectors and see how they work strategically. 

Going ahead, policy frameworks should encourage innovation, whether tech-related or non, she added, and that this should be supported by education. 

Spencer Horne, founder of logistics startup Cloudline in South Africa, said that technology can be transformative in healthcare, but the extent of this is subject to how this is enabled on the African continent.

The pandemic had revealed fundamental technology constraints in healthcare systems - gaps that may be filled through entrepreneurs. “What we call leapfrogging in Africa,” he said, explaining it as going beyond conventional systems to solve a problem as quickly and as efficiently as possible. An example Horne shared was the mobile “revolution” in Africa and subsequent money mobile revolution. 

According to Jean Pierre Horne, Head of Healthcare, AWS South Africa, resilience and leveraging insights through data, which he described as unprecedented, were lessons learned from Africa’s pandemic experience. The modernisation of technology would furthermore enable data-driven insights to predict healthcare events, and ability to respond to them, through advances in machine learning. 

Health data protection

During a separate panel discussion on Telemedicine opportunities and challenges in Africa: policy and regulatory perspective, Robin Njiru, Business Lead - East-West Africa, at AWS in Kenya, described AWS’ approach of working with local bodies and partners to ensure that that laws around data protection and virtual consultations protect patients and practitioners alike. 

AWS has found governments and ministries of health receptive to a collaborative approach to ensure that regulation does not stifle innovation, he added. 

Commenting on health data theft, Dr Olajide Adebola, Chief Technology Officer / Partner at Nigeria-based telemedicine/ehealth business Home Plus Medicare Services, said that the Nigeria Data Protection Regulation (2019) while “a step in the right direction” was not sufficiently detailed as regards the delivery of health services, describing that it did not require for instance how long data storage should be held. 

Security and health infrastructure was important, he stressed, and he called for health data policies in Nigeria addressing data protection, quality, and integrity. 

“It starts with ethics talking about the rights of the patients, and doing good without harm,” he elaborated further. Most of the digital health tools deployed in Nigeria are furthermore “foreign”. He urged an avoidance of data “colonisation” and theft through having each territory look at its own health data.

“Data security is job zero,” said Njiru in agreement, referring to a phrase commonly used at AWS, meaning that all its solutions are designed with security in mind. Storing and processing health data in the cloud makes it safer than the alternative, he continued, adding that AWS ensures that the customer experience is “ethical”.

Dr Raphael Akangbe, Assistant Director and Data Protection Officer at Lagos State Ministry of Health, commented on laws that “intersect” despite that no specific laws regulating telemedicine activities in Nigeria exist. Lagos State Ministry of Health furthermore leads in compliance with national data protection regulations in Nigeria and is also presently working on a project addressing how digital health will be effective.

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