Addressing the digital health divide in Africa through increased public-private support for digital innovation



Digital innovation is vital for the advancement of African economies and their health services, but to make this possible, some major stumbling blocks must be removed.

This was the consensus among high-level global and African health experts who gathered for a recent online discussion co-hosted by the Africa Health Alliance (AHA) and the USA Healthcare Alliance (USAHA) on promoting health care infrastructure and bridging the digital divide in Africa. The main challenges discussed included the lack of broadband infrastructure, a dearth of digitized data for actionable systemic information, and inadequate long-term investment and policy support for innovative health technologies in Africa.

Three of the attendees, Microsoft (www.Microsoft.com/en-za), BroadReach Group (https://BroadReachcorporation.com) and access.mobile International (www.AccessMobile.io), shared their experiences of successful partnership with each others and with other actors to solve complex large-scale health problems on the continent.

It was agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic presented a rare opportunity for the health sector in Africa to address many long-standing systemic challenges and use their new momentum to mobilize key players, technology, available funding and improved resources. to work, to solve more than just a long-term pandemic.

“I like to use the elephant and cheetah analogy,” said Dr. Ernest Darkoh, co-founder of the BroadReach Group, board member of the Schwab Foundation of the World Economic Forum and TIME Health Hero. “The private sector has the speed and agility of the cheetah and governments the strength of the elephant. When the road is crowded with rocks, you need the power of the elephant to clear the path so that the cheetah can pass. Examples of such public-private partnerships include the provision of broadband or laptops for rural clinic staff.

“It’s time to team up with the cheetah and the elephant and it’s time to scale up. It’s time to put our money where we are and invest in scalable systems – our lives literally depend on it. COVID is a watershed moment that made us realize we need to start doing things differently. We cannot approach this the same way we have approached other things that have taken so long to be accepted, ”said Darkoh, referring to Africa’s longstanding struggles against malaria, tuberculosis and HIV.

“Technology has the power to improve health outcomes, especially access to care, the quality of care, and the patient and provider experience, so you can eliminate waste and improve the efficiency of care. Said Dr. David Rhew, global medical director for Microsoft.

Rhew, who is also a physician, technologist and infectious disease researcher on how technology can be used to improve public health outcomes, said Microsoft is providing health support around the world and in Africa. , both in the clinical field of electronic health records and with digital technologies. that consumers and patients have used. One of its most recent innovations is a “COVID robot” powered by artificial intelligence (AI) to help sort patients. Microsoft noticed, however, that they still face the same challenges: the lack of streamlined communications and high-speed access.

It is for this reason that Microsoft got involved in providing high speed access through technologies such as white space TV (unused spectrum that can be used to transmit WiFi). They also worked with BroadReach on its AI-powered health data platform Vantage and mobile access from mass mobile communications partners to help governments and regions perform large-scale interventions for a more equitable health care delivery to large, vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations.

Governments like South Africa carried out extensive door-to-door screening campaigns early in the pandemic to find out the ages and co-morbidities of people. In partnership with provincial governments, BroadReach also collected screening data, including valuable granular details such as geolocation, household information, and patient categorization. Darkoh explained that the challenge was that scalable solutions weren’t always in place at a larger system level for decision makers to use that data effectively.

To solve such challenges, it was important to remember that you didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, Darkoh said. The private sector, digital innovators, and different government departments already had many of the healthcare technology solutions that governments were now looking for – the key was to open up opportunities for information sharing, collaboration, purchasing and communication. ‘interoperability of existing systems.

“For many African innovators, there is no way to market and the prospect of being contracted by government is unrealistic – they can’t even have these conversations with their governments to support their technology. We need to bring the conversation back to the level of political will, for example to make decisions like “connect every clinic to the electricity and WiFi network”. There are big rocks that we have to move. Let’s run the health care system like we do central banks: regardless of the electoral cycle or the political party in power, over a ten-year period to get things done.

This sentiment was echoed by Kaakpema “KP” Yelpaala, president and founder of access.mobile International (www.AccessMobile.io/about-us), an organization whose mission is to use digital communication channels to improve business access to health services and support positive behavior change in health care. The company has worked extensively in 13 countries in West, East and Southern Africa since its inception in 2011.

“Every African country you visit will find incredible innovation in digital health. As Ernest mentioned, the problem is that they are not making progress and the barrier that leads to the digital divide is infrastructure, ”Yelpaala said.

Yelpaala also believed that another key solution to bridging the gap was to engage “investors with a long-term view of returns.”

The opportunities must be seen in the context of the generational change underway in Africa. “The population is young and this has always presented us with a little enigma. Young people were innovators and active digital consumers, but tended to be healthy and not seek out health information. That is changing with the pandemic. We are in the first generation of digital health adoption on the continent. As Gen 1 ages and the generation behind them begins to embrace digital health, at this point we’ll see them start exponentially. It is really only a matter of time.

Yelpaala believed that digital innovation “was going to be one of the key pathways in transforming African economies and health services” and that African innovations would be used in other parts of the world. This could be made possible through strong public-private partnerships and investments in the already impressive digital innovation that exists in Africa, he said.

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