There has been an exponential rise in the number of people engaging with digital health services through their smartphones across Africa, creating vast potential for countries to deliver access to healthcare digitally.
According to Vodacom’s e-health policy paper released recently as part of the Africa.connected campaign, the healthcare sector is 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 – 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 70pc
The campaign, which was launched earlier this year by Vodacom, Vodafone, and Safaricom, aims to accelerate economic recovery across the continent by helping drive digital inclusion. The first of a series of six policy papers, the e-health paper provides key insights around the role of technology in elevating the healthcare sector – a focus area of development that has been brought to the fore by COVID-19.
As a result, informal use of digital healthcare solutions has increased, with 41pc 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 40pc increase in engagement since March 2021. Growing numbers of private sector players are also entering the sector to meet this demand.
“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 an enormous opportunity – not only when it comes to the reach of healthcare services, but also to dramatically improved health outcomes at decreased costs,” Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub says
Though the rise in engagement with informal healthcare systems is creating new opportunities, there is also a 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 69pc of South Africans and 55pc 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.
To avoid the risks associated with healthcare workers and citizens going outside of formal systems, the architecture of a national health ecosystem must be led by Government. As such, the report calls for more partnerships between the public sector and digital health providers on formal systems. From there, Government can more effectively manage the digital health ecosystem, encouraging the integration of effective start-ups into formal systems and regulating those that could cause harm and spread misinformation.
Lastly, success will depend on the sector’s ability to leverage the informal within the formal. Given the pervasive use of social media, apps, and internet searches, it’s necessary to find a way of using these tools safely within the national health ecosystem.
“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 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.” concludes Joosub.