Africa Needs Telemedicine to Overcome its Healthcare Challenges

Patients undergoing telemedical consultations. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Telemedicine is the provision of medical services to patients remotely when the doctors and patients are physically separated using the two-way voice and visual communication. Modern technology has enabled doctors to consult patients by the HIPAA compliant video conferencing tools powered by satellite tech. Consequently, Telemedicine is already playing a huge role in cost reduction in wellness. 

 

In the past, providers struggled with compensation for telehealth services. In contrast, Telemedicine is providing grounds for technologies and solutions that will empower people to get diagnoses and treatment faster and more efficiently than ever. Intelligence and Machine Learning Models are helping diagnose skin cancer by mobile devices. Cologuard is assisting people in testing themselves for colon cancer and other diseases. The at-home genetic testing offered by 23andme is helping people take preventive action on life-threatening challenges.

An air ambulance compartment installed in a commercial airline by Flying Doctors.

Although Africa is behind in information and communication technologies infrastructure, the continent is participating in the race for good health. The Flying Doctors Healthcare Investment Company in Nigeria has healthcare technology companies in its portfolio that are worth an estimated $200 million. Flying Doctors partner with Arik Air, to build healthcare compartments in their planes to help cut evacuation costs. Following this model, patient transfers within the country save from about $20,000 to less than $2,000. Flying Doctors currently move about 20 patients every month. Flying Doctors ambulance services base has only 30% Nigerian clients, as the company also services Gabon, Central Africa Republic, Congo and Burkina Faso.

On the ground, Telemedicine is in place between 33 regional and university teaching hospitals in Nigeria. Mobile medical vans with ICT facilities interchange between hospitals to render services. The university doctors give instructions to their counterparts in other hospitals on how to carry out procedures. Nigeria is planning the replacement of mobile vans with fixed structures across university teaching hospitals to assist the exchange of information and expertise in medical education.

Similarly, Angola has been seen in the front line of Telemedicine in Africa, being the first region in the to have ten interconnected municipalities. Patients in rural areas of a province without specialised service get medical consultations without having to journey to urban areas. Telemedicine is within the framework of the Angola satellite (AngoSat) Project.

Telemedicine in South Africa had a rocky start, yet it promises to support the delivery of healthcare to rural regions of the country. Although at present, regulations don’t allow people-to-doctor conversation through telemedicine platforms, the dialogue between doctors in rural hospitals with specialist doctors in specialised hospitals would also help in better diagnosis and treatment.

With renewed interest in Telemedicine among academics, researchers, private enterprises and health professionals, South Africa has a promising future. Also, e-Health could be the most successful telemedicine type in South Africa, which has revolutionised healthcare in the country. With the mobile penetration rate in the country, the telemedicine market will record high growth in South Africa in future.

Furthermore, Ghana, It has been observed in various cases that a successful effort would require the indulgence of both the public and private sector. Also, the Novartis Foundation has sponsored investments in Telemedicine, such as the setting up of teleconsultation centres (TCCs). However, Government support is essential for the regular payments of the staff and the maintenance of the equipment.

 

mTrac uses SMS to help people in remote areas access medical aid.

Uganda is one of the under-developed countries in the world. To improve healthcare in the country, the government is making efforts towards embracing Telemedicine. mTrac is one of Uganda’s telemedicine projects, as Uganda continues to work towards attaining a sustainable medical solution to the challenge with health service delivery. mTrac works across mobile platforms, allowing access through non-internet-necessary services such as SMS.

 

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic validates the need for Telemedicine to protect physicians and patients. Web conferencing features can also allow educators to continue handing practical medical training to students throughout the pandemic. 

African governments need to acknowledge and embrace the multitude of opportunities open to them through Telemedicine. Telemedicine is an excellent tool for the management of infectious diseases, which is commonplace everywhere, but especially in Africa. Telemedicine could allow providers to triage patients, reducing the problem in Emergency Departments. Emergency care providers can ascertain which patients need immediate care or intervention of going to an urgent care clinic.

Sadly, Telemedicine in African countries encounters infrastructural hindrances such as electricity, internet access, and cellular network coverage. Most African countries rank poorly in terms of internet speed in the world. Moreover, the cost for virtual consultations is currently affordable only to persons in the middle and upper classes of African society. For instance, in Nigeria, 40% of the population lives below the poverty minimum, making telehealth services inaccessible to them. Likewise, governments must also develop the policies needed to guide the implementation of Telemedicine across Africa within the ethical confines of medical practice. Similarly, regulation of the scope of care, as well as the criteria for practitioners and facilities, are much needed. Importantly, policy, economic and infrastructural support needs to be put in place to reduce the cost of care. 

Therefore, the derived support of telepathology technologies could be a significant milestone to complement African governments in the healthcare services for the ever-rising population against the available planned resources. Proper implementation of telepathology requires an improved motivation of healthcare service providers and enhanced awareness and skills training of pathologists, other medical cadres and professionals in other disciplines in computer and relevant information technologies to embrace eHealth skills, which include Telemedicine.

Furthermore, AUC space strategy implores member states to consider long-term strategic plans for the development and implementation of eHealth services which include Telemedicine. It also needs to call on governments to form national eHealth bodies to guide policy and strategy, data security, legal and ethical issues, as well as funding, monitoring and evaluations.

Finally, the AUC space strategy encourages member states to adopt local contexts eHealth policies that include the use of Telemedicine. They are also encouraged to inform policy by engaging stakeholders at all levels; communities, health professional, academic institutions and health administrators.

 

© Space in Africa 2020

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New Report: The 2020 Edition of African Space Industry Annual Report is now available. It presents data and analyses on projects, deals, partnership and investments across the continent. It also provides analyses on the growing demand for space technologies and data on the continent, the business opportunities it offers and the necessary regulatory environment in the various countries.

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