How Telehealth Can Help Cover the Healthcare Gap in Africa
February 25, 2022
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by Stephen Kanyi

Growing up in the lower suburbs of Nairobi I always wondered why people went to hospitals. I always thought that my parents, especially my mom (who was incidentally a nurse herself) could provide all the medical care I ever needed. This sentiment was shared among all my friends who regarded a visit to the hospital as a preserve of weak kids from the rich estate down the road, not the hard stock of the slum.

Its only upon reflection, now that I am older, that I realize why my mom chose to treat me at the house and not at the office. Why the kids from the rich estate grew faster and always looked a tinge lighter than us. It’s a fact that still rings true even now that my mom is not here to treat me at home: A visit to the hospital is better than mom’s remedies and more importantly, only the rich kids could afford to see the doctor.

And despite the massive gains made through the years, good healthcare still remains out of reach for a large portion of Africans. With about 46% of Africans living on less than a dollar today, it is no wonder many cannot access basic healthcare. Malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS; diseases that other parts of the world have managed to get under control, are still big problems for the continent.

The situation is made worse by an acute lack of both medical professionals and resources. With a ratio of one doctor to 5000 people and a corresponding lack of infrastructure in terms of roads and vehicles, it is virtually impossible to get medical care to more than half of the sub-Saharan population living in rural areas.

With a population growth rate of 2.45%, there is sure to be increased stress on an already strained healthcare network. A solution is needed, one that takes will help reach the most remote regions of the continent without the need for direct access.

Telehealth as a solution

While sub-Saharan Africa may suffer from an ever-growing gap in access to medical healthcare, the region has made great strides in internet connectivity. And while you might have heard about an equally lower gap in terms of internet connectivity there are select countries whose rate of internet connectivity can rival some in the developed world.

Nations such as Kenya, Nigeria and Libya have internet connectivity of well over 80%. Herein lies an opportunity to fill in the health gap with an even more revolutionary technology; telehealth.

Telehealth as it is used is a broad term that uses various technologies and utilizes different methodologies to achieve on thing; give remote healthcare to patients without a visit to the hospital.

While telehealth has been growing in the West, especially during COVID lockdowns, African nations with high internet connectivity rates are prime candidates where telehealth can help provide medical care to the rural population or people who may not be able to afford a visit to a doctor.

Take Kenya for example, a country of about 57 million where more than 70% of its population live in rural areas. The country has one of the highest (if not the highest) percentages of internet connectivity on the continent.

While the country has made significant advances in medical care in the last decade, it is nowhere near enough. I can personally attest to that. I can’t count how many times I have had to wait in very long lines just to get some attention. And, even then, the best you can get from a doctor’s visit is a quick ‘diagnosis’ (if I can call it that) which is then followed by a trip to the chemist where you have to part with quite a few Kenyan shillings.

But no worries, I have my Samsung phone with me to keep me entertained as I wait for a substandard diagnosis.

I’m sure you know where I am going with this. What if I never left my house and instead got a diagnosis via my phone? All I am going to do at the hospital is just tell them my symptoms so I might as well do that via phone.

In fact, my girlfriend already does that, or at least some form of it. She, by principle, avoids a visit to the hospital whenever she can. Instead, she has a list of doctor ‘friends’ whom she calls anytime she feels sick. And, surprise surprise, she always gets the right diagnosis. That is telehealth at work right there.

One company: Youpal, has already recognized the potential of this idea and is planning to launch a telehealth product in Kenya.

YouMedico product head Jovanna says “With this solution, we want to empower patients to get connected to caregivers and get needed care anytime. This can address inequities in access for patients that otherwise might not be able to get their treatment due to social or financial reasons, having to wait in queues, shortage of physicians in their area, and on the other side helping doctors to have more flexibility and serve\ more patients, even in secluded corners of any region. So the goal is to improve the healthcare experience for everyone.”

An idea whose time was overdue if you ask me. In fact, I am a little jealous I didn’t come up with it myself. But hey, I am glad it is coming anyway. It is going to do a lot of good for the country and perhaps even save some lives.

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