Telemedicine in Africa: A Journey Towards Healthcare for All

Telemedicine is arguably the next frontier in medical care. Being the era of the internet, humanity wants everything served to them at their convenience. That includes healthcare.

Thanks to the internet, it’s now possible to ‘see’ your physician, get diagnosed, order drugs and have them delivered to your doorstep. All that without leaving your house. A quick web search will also give you hundreds of tutorials on how to administer a self-injection, so yes, telemedicine is here stay. The Western world has had a good uptake so far.

That, however, cannot be said of telemedicine in Africa. The concept is relatively new in some countries and unheard of in others. First, Africa cannot be said to be at par with the rest of the world regarding technological development. Much of its natural and human resources are still largely unexploited. Furthermore, a sizable amount of the population still has no access to any form of affordable healthcare, leave alone telemedicine. The uptake of technology and the internet is also low and slow. Therefore, there is much yet to be done. However, it doesn’t mean that nothing has been done at all. The continent is slowly but surely moving forward.

The Sad State of Healthcare in Africa

The current state of health in Africa is a far cry from commendable. The available health infrastructure is often inadequate and strained due to the many people who rely on it. Professionally trained health personnel is also few in between making the conditions worse. Things are not made any easier as outbreaks of communicable diseases such as malaria and cholera are not a rare phenomenon. The rate of HIV and Tuberculosis is also at a record high in some countries. In 2016, the WHO put infant mortality rate in Africa at 52 deaths per 1000 live births which is six times higher than in Europe. Most of these cases are often preventable if attended in time. It is this sad state of affairs that has led to the introduction of innovative technology, such as telemedicine, to help provide healthcare to everybody.

Several studies have been carried out aiming at successfully introducing telemedicine to the African masses. The targeted cohorts are mostly people in very remote areas who have no access to any health infrastructure. For instance, a pregnant woman in a remote area may develop complications. The fact that the nearest health facility may be tens of kilometers away may mean she will not make it there on time subsequently putting her life and that of the unborn on the line.

eHealth Clinics

Countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya have made attempts at introducing telemedicine. The Kenyan government, for instance, has promised to install eHealth clinics in five hospitals in a pilot program. Rwanda has already begun commercial delivery service by using drones. The country aims at delivering blood and drugs to remote areas. In Nigeria, the government has partnered with India to provide health services to its citizens.

Many times Nigerians had to travel to India to seek specialized treatment. Through telemedicine, the patient speaks with a doctor in India and gets diagnosed. A Nigerian doctor is also linked to the conversation and, together with the Indian doctor, they reach an agreement on how to attend the patient. The patient is then attended there in the Nigerian hospital thus saving thousands of dollars required to travel to India.

There are, however, numerous challenges facing telemedicine in Africa. Lack of political support is a significant issue. For instance, Burkina Faso has had to suspend telemedicine efforts due to lack of budgetary allocation. Also, failure by the current health personnel to subscribe to the idea defeats the purpose of telemedicine. Moreover, the lack of ICT infrastructure is a significant hurdle in many countries.

Lethargic Government Response to Telemedicine

Most notably, telemedicine in the Western countries majorly links patients with the doctor. In Africa, it connects doctors in smaller local health facilities to their counterparts in national and bigger hospitals, usually for consultation purposes. This is partly because the majority of the population doesn’t have access to the internet or internet-enabled devices capable of video conferencing. The lethargic response by African governments has also prompted entrepreneurial individuals to venture into telemedicine. Most of the telemedicine service providers are privately owned companies in which the government has little or no stake at all.

Healthcare is a human right that everybody should enjoy. Telemedicine in Africa is a great solution to the ailing healthcare system. It still has a long way to go, but the journey of a thousand steps has already begun. The field is also ripe for any other entrepreneurial person out there.

About Alex Muiruri

Alex is a passionate writer based in Kenya. He's also a professionally trained health officer and a great enthusiast of science and technology. Besides writing, he enjoys doing motivational speaking and possesses strong opinions on life. He's a lover of people and enjoys good company. He's also a devoted Christian, but respects the beliefs of others.

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