Across Africa, there has been an exponential rise in the number of people engaging with digital health services through their smartphones, creating vast potential for countries to deliver access to healthcare digitally. This was a key finding of Vodacom’s e-health policy paper released recently as part of the Africa.connected campaign. Based on research and personal insights from recipients across the continent whose lives have been changed because of these services, this paper tells a story of a continent on the cusp of digital health transformation.
The campaign, which was launched earlier this year by Vodacom, Vodafone and Safaricom, aims to accelerate economic recovery across the continent by helping drive digital inclusion. The first of a series of six policy papers, the e-health paper provides key insights around the role of technology in elevating the healthcare sector – a focus area of development that has been brought to the fore by COVID-19.
Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub says: “In many ways, the pandemic has also opened our eyes to new possibilities in the healthcare space. Our ability to deliver on the promise of digital solutions at scale presents enormous opportunity – not only when it comes to the reach of healthcare services, but also to dramatically improved health outcomes at decreased costs.”
A sector gearing up for transformation
The report reflects a healthcare sector on the verge of transformation. While Governments are accelerating formal digital health strategies – 41 out of 54 African countries have a digital health strategy in place – consumers are dramatically increasing their engagement with digital health services via their smartphones. It is forecast that by 2025, smartphone reach in sub-Saharan Africa will increase by almost 70%.
As a result, informal use of digital healthcare solutions has increased, with 41% of internet users across Africa regularly using their mobile phones to search for health information. Digital health apps have also seen increased usage during the pandemic. According to Apptopia, the Byon8 app, which offers access to online doctors and symptom check-ups, has shown on average a 40% increase in engagement since March 2021. Growing numbers of private sector players are also entering the sector to meet this demand.
Though the rise in engagement with informal healthcare systems is creating new opportunity, there is also significant risk in circumventing formal systems. Concerns range from privacy and the security of personal data to medical misinformation, which is a very real threat when it comes to social media. The report confirms that 69% of South Africans and 55% of Kenyans report that they’ve seen information that is obviously false or untrue on social media.
Perhaps most importantly, informal systems can exacerbate inequality – partly because they preclude users with low levels of digital literacy and partly because they leave the burden of cost with the end user or healthcare worker.
A key question posed by the study is how countries across the continent can leverage the rise in usage of digital health solutions and integrate them into the formal health system. It suggests three steps in resolving this challenge.
The call for more public-private partnerships
To avoid the risks associated with healthcare workers and citizens going outside of formal systems, the architecture of a national health ecosystem must be led by Government. As such, the report calls for more partnerships between the public sector and digital health providers on formal systems. From there, Government can more effectively manage the digital health ecosystem, encouraging the integration of effective start-ups into formal systems and regulating those that could cause harm and spread misinformation.
Lastly, success will depend on the sector’s ability to leverage the informal within the formal. Given the pervasive use of social media, apps and internet searches, it’s necessary to find a way of using these tools safely within the national health ecosystem.
Vodacom’s Mum & Baby service in South Africa is a good example of how this can work successfully. Mum & Baby provides free information about pregnancy and childcare via mobile devices for parents-to-be. The service includes regular text messages, articles, tutorials, videos, an immunisation calendar, and a pregnancy medicine checker. This service has proved particularly helpful in rural areas where families often battle to access health centres.
“The vision behind the Africa.connected campaign – to help close the digital divide in Africa’s key economic sectors – is ambitious and we understand that we cannot achieve this alone. While this paper explores many of the challenges and opportunities associated with digital health solutions, it underscores the necessity of partnerships between the public and private sectors in driving critical outcomes. We must ‘meet in the middle’, integrating formal and informal digital health systems to harness the current rise in digital health engagement. It is our efforts now, working together to propel digital inclusion, which will determine Africa’s future,” concludes Joosub.