Infrastructure and Internet connectivity key to digital health in Africa

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The African technology landscape is changing, with increased ICT infrastructure and more Internet connectivity creating a situation that is ripe for the adoption of healthcare tech, delegates heard at the Africa Tech Festival’s “Industry Deep Dives- Healthcare.”
The Africa Tech Festival is taking place this week from the 9 -12 November. Dedicated to accelerating Africa’s enterprise digital transformation, AfricaTech attracts over 11,000 technology experts and business leaders across a broad range of industry verticals.
In his chairperson’s remarks, Harry Pappas, founder and CEO of Intelligent Health Association. said that there are a lot of things happening in healthcare tech in Africa. The focus of Intelligent Health Association is to help drive the evolution to a digital revolution, he said.
Their developments will not be limited to just one country, but will also benefit all other countries including the 55 countries on the African continent, he said. “Coronavirus is coronavirus and diabetes is diabetes everywhere in the world,” he emphasised.
Pappas added that tech is playing a critical role in the fight against coronavirus – for example, in recording cases and contact tracing. However, he suggested that society should never forget that long after we have a vaccine for coronavirus, these techs will still be here to be used for other health issues. “All these techs impact us, our families, friends and colleagues,” he said.
A snapshot of the African tech landscape
In laying the foundation for the discussion, “Adopting and Leveraging technologies to help redesign the continent’s healthcare system to provide improved health and wellness via digital health networks during Covid-19 and beyond,” Fawzi Behmann, President of TelNet Management Consulting noted that Africa is made up of 55 countries with a population of 1.3 billion.
Infrastructure on the continent varies depeding on the country and what kind of connectivity has been installed, whether it’s 3G or 4G, he said. However, the first commonality among the countries was that urban areas had faster connectvity, whereas rural areas tended to lag on these factors.
The second commonality was that all countries tended to have a problem of power blackouts, which affected everyone, and people never know when the power will come back, he said. Even the ritzy hotels don’t run generators, because it could get expensive to run generators for long periods of time.
This tended to limit Internet connectivity because you can’t have Internet without electricity. The impact of this was that a healthcare provider may experience disruption during their consultation or when sending X-rays, he said.
The third commonality was that Internet connectivity tended to be through mobile devices due to the infrastructure that is available and the choice of devices. These mobile devices tended to be used by men, he said.
However, there are key developments taking in place which will make digital health more efficient and accessible, he said. For example, studies done by the International Telecommunications Union and McKinsey show that there are big instrastructure investments being made on the continent.
Behmann noted that 30 countries out of the 55 African countries (representing 700 million people out of the R1.3 billion) have come together to create what is being called Smart Africa. They are investing in instrastruture and Internet connectivity and other resources to create smart cities, he said.
Tech and diagnosis
Sathya Elumalai, the founder and CEO of Aidar Health talked about the Tricorder-style rapid health assessment device that his company created. Called MouthLab, it is a remote diagnostic tool that can monitor key biomarkers in a patient and not be limited to just monitoring temperature like the thermometer. Some cases were not reflected by a change in temperature, he said, noting that his initial motivation for creating the device was to help his mother. “We needed a device that could show multiple key biomarkers,” he said.
In the future, medical professionals will be able to send the patient home with the device and will be able to monitor them. The device will also be able to tell medical professionals which patients need to come back for more treatment, he said.
Dr. Yaa Kumah-Crystal, an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Informatics and Pediatric Endocrinology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, spoke about how health tech can be simple and something that patients are already used to.
For example a medical professional could communicate remotely with a patient using WhatsApp, where the patient takes a photo of an externally displaying problem such as a rash and send it to the doctor, she said. Also, adopting voice technologies in digital health makes the process easier for everyone all round, as people are already used to communicating through voice to communicate their wishes.
Elumalai agreed with her, noting that his Mom had Alexa on her mobile device but hardly ever used it because it felt alien to her. Digital health needs to be humane, he said.

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