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 in Vodacom’s e-health policy paper titled “Harnessing the post-COVID-19 rise of digital public health engagement in sub-Saharan Africa”
The COVID-19 pandemic, though, has forced us to take a hard look at the state of our medical industry, its successes and its shortcomings, exposing the need for change and innovation which technology can enable. With professional services typically concentrated in urban areas, hundreds of millions of people living in rural communities’ battle to access even basic medical treatment. Recent events have exposed the scale of the predicament, with data from the World Health Organization (WHO) showing there are just 1.2 hospital beds per 1000 people living in Africa
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 and 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 opportunities, 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
How countries can integrate digital health solutions into formal health systems
Governments partner with the private sector on formal systems – The architecture of a national digital health ecosystem needs to be robust and government-led. Manage the end-user digital health ecosystem
- Governments can implement policy and regulation to encourage integration between start-ups and formal health systems, and prevent the spread of misinformation. Understand how to integrate the information within the formal
- Accept that social media, apps and Google searches are the most common digital health tools used by beneficiaries and understand how to safely and ethically utilise them within a national digital health ecosystem.
What they are saying
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.”