By Shameel Joosub, Vodacom Group CEO
Fast forward ten years from now – what can we expect from the healthcare sector in Africa?
Much has already been said about how the healthcare industry stands to benefit from the adoption of technology like 5G. Increased speeds mean better hospital efficiency, streamlined communication and critical data sharing between departments, clinics and hospitals. There is also the infinite potential of 5G enabled devices. With early clinical studies indicating that spine procedures can be conducted remotely on a 5G connection, imagine how many more patients in rural parts of Africa may one day be able to receive surgery from a remote specialist without the need for extensive travel.
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 Organisation (WHO) showing there are just 1.2 hospital beds per 1 000 people living in Africa.
In many ways, the pandemic has also opened our eyes to new possibilities in the healthcare space. Even as forward-thinking Governments are driving formal digital health strategies, consumers are taking advantage of increased access to mobile connectivity by seeking out informal health services on their smartphones. The sharp increase in demand for these services is also encouraging new private players to enter the sector. Currently, there is an all-time high of 180 digital health start-ups in sub-Saharan Africa.
Medical journals have dubbed the continent the new ‘breeding ground’ for global digital health. And with the WHO reporting that 120 health technology innovations have been piloted across Africa since the start of COVID-19, it’s easy to understand why. From tracing and tracking to administration of the vaccine, incredible technological innovation has arisen from the pandemic, helping to mitigate the effects of the virus and get people vaccinated.
For instance, Vodacom’s Mpilo app is enabling healthcare workers to trace people who have tested positive for COVID-19, and IoT solutions developed by our subsidiary IoT.nxt are allowing businesses to track people’s movements across their facilities, using information from thermal cameras to provide real-time body temperatures.
AI is also dramatically accelerating the rate at which medical professionals can detect the likes of COVID-19 and lung diseases. By analysing x-rays and CT scans, AI models can significantly enhance diagnostic capabilities.
Vodacom’s partnership with AUDA-NEPAD has brought the power of technology in the health sector to life. To build critical digital infrastructure to manage the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across 55 countries, we are leveraging our mVacciNation platform to ensure people get the right vaccine, at the right place and time. On a continent with scores of people spread across underserved communities, this initiative helps to ensure that no one is left behind.
The way in which technology is designed is also helping to change lives, and not just of those in rural communities. Vodacom recently launched the Nokia 2720 – a smartphone designed to provide greater access for senior citizens, people living with disabilities and those who experience other communication barriers.
The door is open to drive access to healthcare digitally. 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. Existing research from randomised controlled trials shows that mobile health services create cost savings and increase desired health outcomes in 100% of cases.
Understanding how we bridge the gap between opportunity and success is the next crucial step in Africa’s digital transformation. In this spirit, we are launching a series of six policy papers that include digital access, sustainability, financial inclusion, literacy and digital education and SME and enterprises. We have commissioned this research in order to provide critical insights around the role of technology in elevating key areas of Africa’s digital economy.
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 first 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.
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