Bridging healthcare needs with the available facilities is often seen as a challenge in the African context. National governments are often low on funds, and therefore unable to provide adequate healthcare facilities to cater for the needs of all their citizens, especially those in rural and remote regions. Adding to the burden are growing populations, low literacy rates, and low numbers of healthcare professionals. Together these result in high morbidities and mortalities.
To help solve these concurrent issues, several companies have started offering mobile oriented healthcare solutions to educate, monitor, and encourage African people for better healthcare outcomes.
Using mobile phones to amend health conditions not only reduces the barrier of distance, but also captures the attention of users, as mobile phones are the most widely accessed form of technology in the continent.
Frost & Sullivan’s research studies confirm that Africa is currently the fastest-growing and second-largest mobile phone market in the world. It is estimated that by 2020, mobile-based industries will be worth a consolidated $5.1 billion.
Over the past 3-5 years, Africans have started utilizing mobile phone applications to bring an improvement in their health indicators. The mHealth applications at present are also being recognized and used by national governments in Africa to create awareness, monitor health, and increase accessibility of services. The utility of such apps is neither country-specific nor region-specific, and the companies offering the apps are leaving no stone unturned to extend their services to as many people as possible.
Prominent Vendors Offering mHealth
While most of the service suppliers are start-ups being initiated by either recent college graduates or experienced industry professionals, there are instances of mobile applications being launched with support from government as well. Though the majority of the applications offer general consultations on common ailments, there are many specific apps that prominently focus on catering to the needs of maternal and child healthcare. Some of these apps are:
- Aviro Health is a free-of-charge mHealth app that assists healthcare workers in offering support (medical and psychological) to those suffering from HIV; in South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. It educates and trains healthcare workers with guidelines for treatment of HIV (identification of patients; administration of ARV drugs, and offering support as per South Africa’s Clinical Guidelines). It also provides access to a referral system and an HIV hotline. In 2016, Aviro is expected to expand its services to Cote D’Ivoire. It also plans to launch an adherence app for HIV in countries where Aviro is functioning. In 2016, Aviro will also launch HIV chat with an additional feature of connecting healthcare workers with HIV experts for guidelines and better decision support, while maintaining confidentiality of patient information. Moreover, in 2016, version-2 of Aviro will be launched in South Africa to offer e-learning support to nurses and other healthcare workers.
- In Nigeria, the app Omomi (from MOBicure) offer a platform to mothers for monitoring their children’s nutrition and immunization schedules, and aims towards fulfilling the Childhood Survival Strategies developed by the W.H.O. to help reduce child mortality and promote maternal health. One of the prominent features of this app is that of offering a mothers’ community – an online forum for mothers for interacting with each other, discussing common problems, and finding solutions.
- In August 2014, the South African Government and Johnson & Johnson launched an mHealth app called MomConnect to offer awareness to every pregnant woman about receiving better antenatal and postnatal care. It also renders information on better infant care and vaccination schedules. Since introduction, it has registered more than half of the estimated number of pregnant women, and been embraced by over 90% of public health facilities. In 2016, MomConnect will be integrated with another app named ‘Faster to Zero’ that will use digital health tools to accelerate the end of mother-to-child transmission of HIV in South Africa as well as other nations in Africa.
- In Cameroon and Nigeria, GiftedMom educates pregnant women and young mothers to monitor their health and their children’s health. It sends scheduled reminders to women to undergo regular antenatal checks and to follow vaccination schedules. It assists users in tracking the vaccination programs of their children aged up to 5 years. Scheduled vaccinations contribute to reducing under-5 mortalities, which is an extremely significant requirement for the continent. The app also propagates safe sexual practices and offers family planning advice. Furthermore, it offers a FAQ service and connects its subscribers directly with doctors. In 2016, GiftedMom will extend its services to western and central Africa, particularly in Gabon, Mali, Senegal, and Côte d’Ivoire.
- In Kenya, Zambia and South Africa, the app Hello Doctor offers personalized health information and connects patients to doctors using SMSs. It also offers micro-loans for health expenses and helps in purchasing health insurance. It offers its services in English and in French. In 2016, it will be offered in in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Uganda, Cameroon, and Nigeria.
- mHealth app MDConsults offers a specialized telemedicine platform for live videoconferencing in many African nations such as South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and Sierra Leone. It stores and shares patients’ information (such as radiology and pathology results) using DICOM and provides assistance in diagnosis of ailments ranging from fevers to life-threatening disorders such as diarrhoea, cardiovascular, and respiratory diseases.
Challenges in the mHealth Scenario
Though the usage of mobile health applications has resulted in significant improvement in healthcare of the population, certain challenges are required to be addressed as well. These challenges prevent the use of technology, wherein the cost of communication (via SMS or mobile Internet packages) is borne by the users. Often, there are mHealth information services that ask users to subscribe to their message services that either educate users or monitor their health.
Adding to this is the fact that there are no specific regulations pertaining to the usage of mobile phones for healthcare. This raises the questions for policymakers about how they can make mHealth a viable, reliable source of gathering data for subsequent use and analysis. Furthermore, stigma that is sometimes associated with technology and healthcare can lead to reluctance to share health related data using mobile phones. Another hurdle is that in rural regions, mobile phones usually belong to the head of the household, which can make it difficult for other family members to monitor their health.
Another significant challenge lies in the fact that African nations do not generally offer good-quality, streamlined, and integrated universal healthcare coverage. At present, the healthcare ecosystems in African nations encourage patients to select and use the services of a variety of providers. This makes the consolidation and ownership of medical information challenging, as patients’ information is acquired from multiple sources. Inward-facing enterprise m-health apps have contributed toward providing a platform, wherein patients’ information from cradle to grave can be integrated.
The Way Forward
The mHealth apps have contributed toward increasing the common man’s awareness regarding their nearest medical facilities, have been helping in tracking immunisations, and also been aiding toward conducting remote diagnostics. Thus, they are revolutionizing the entire regional healthcare landscape, which results in higher referrals, faster diagnoses, and a dramatically improved patient experience. The mHealth apps help people to avoid the stress of covering long distances to receive consultations on a regular basis. These digital tools assist in self- monitoring and in providing access to specialized healthcare professionals on a global scale. They also help healthcare professionals by allowing them to share test results from outlying areas and share real time consultations.
It is expected that with the changing healthcare landscape in Africa, especially in the prominent emerging economies, governments will offer more support toward development of the mHealth industry on the continent. The greatest need for the mHealth industry is to have specific regulations that will help them in streamlining their business, increasing their customer base, exploring international boundaries, as well as achieving profitability.
Absence of reliable, modern infrastructure also hinders the widespread usage of health centric apps and limits integration with local healthcare systems. It is a time-consuming process for governments to bring the African public healthcare infrastructure up to par with the ones in developed economies. Till then, it is recommended that hospitals and other health entities can explore the options of using customized and government-recognized mHealth apps. Such mHealth apps will further help in streamlining hospitals’ back-end processes. They can also help to facilitate the introduction of an interactive Electronic Health Records (EHR) system by handling user authorization, analysis, and sharing of patients’ records. The data gathered can generate valuable insight for epidemiological and demographic studies, thus further improving the healthcare of the population at large.