Imagining Africa’s healthcare future

March 28, 2017

When a medical researcher expert told me she imagines that very soon will have cases where one general practitioner managing say 100 patients from over 150 kilometres away or more, i thought it was an illusion. It wasn’t until the Melbourne born researcher educated me on how predictive analytics is used to forecast when a patient is likely to get sick and interestingly, it does that days before they get sick. Her work, is currently involving networked databases working with intelligent algorithms, to achieve greater levels of accuracy in diagnosis and treatment of conditions that are common in rural areas of Africa. Her and the team of researchers from different parts of the world are working on innovation enabled by technology that is set to transform the delivery of healthcare as Africa faces the impact of increasing population.While there is no doubt new medical and sophisticated information technologies are rapidly changing healthcare as we know it, it’s crunch time for many of Africa’s health facilities which now face an increasing need to house and integrate complex new hardware in colonial era infrastructure. The ability to capture and analyse health data in real-time like the researcher demonstrated to me, is causing a shift from reactive to predictive medicine, changing the role of Africa healthcare facilities in service delivery.As the roles of medical practitioners are set to evolve going forward, African healthcare sector looks to be set for changes as it is creating healthcare facilities that can best support new technologies in a changing environment.Having listened to Melburnian researcher, it is very clear there are a number of factors set to drive massive changes in Africa’s healthcare system from now onwards. One of them is the exponential growth of information technology which can be applied to healthcare to improve the way delivery of services to patients is done.

In my view, data will be at the centre of transformation of healthcare in Africa and with the likes of work Melburnian researcher is doing, there will be capability to gain extraordinary amounts of data about individuals, especially about things which are highly correlated to disease like temperature throughout aspects of their physiology and neurology. According to the researcher, Africa will have data and information of a different magnitude which will be able to provide vast amount of information about patients. This will in turn impact many aspects of the health process. It will impact drug development and the process for developing and trialing drugs like Malaria and HIV AIDS. In her views, data will enable adaptive clinical trials, where the path of the trial can be changed throughout the process to maximise the outcomes for participants. It will provide the ability to move more quickly to find potential drugs that can benefit Africans and allow medical practitioner to understand the full context of how these drugs may be beneficial. Information technology will transform the treatment process in Africa and will enable doctors to correlate information not just for an individual patient in terms of their physiological profile, but also at a genetic level to create more personalised treatment. She also reckons that personalised treatment will only be possible in Africa through rich data, rather than simply creating a generic cure that may or may not be relevant to everybody.The ability to find and share data more effectively as Africa health industry is very important because of the major challenges Africa healthcare sector faces in achieving this, is privacy, both from a regulatory and individual perspective and the attitudes towards how information is shared. An education process is needed to show the value of sharing personal data, as well as providing the structures to be able to share data using appropriate tagging or classification of data.

This according to the researcher will lead to transformation in healthcare efficiency across Africa.While there still might be reluctance from people to share personal information about their health, it will be the individuals and organisations that will need to provide leadership to drive this effectively. There are so many blocks in terms of attitudes and regulations that are currently stopping data sharing in Africa but which with time will be overcome.There are also some layers of resistance in the technology infrastructure currently being used in African healthcare, especially when it comes to medical health records. These records are sometimes being designed to be held within government organisations rather than to be shared in any way. Going ahead, health industry leadership is required on how data sharing is implemented not just a sharing of personal health records, but as how researchers can use data to create more value for the communities in Africa.A significant part of the future of healthcare will be tele-health and the ability to deliver healthcare remotely. Some African countries are already beginning to see more and more medical consultation with medical professionals done remotely, using everything from drones delivering medicine in Rwanda through to richer services, which allows the doctor to instruct a patient to do particular tests on themselves. This is part of a shift from responsive to predictive medicine. This transformation is partly based on data as well as connectivity. Clearly there will be times when Africans need to physically go into hospitals, which will mean the most significant driver in Africa’s healthcare will be cost. With a growing population with increasing expectations on how to manage health, costs will continue rising. This could begin to be a massive social problem, so one of the things that will become important is the ability to minimise the amount which Africans have to go to hospital, both by pre-emptive care and being able to consult doctors remotely.

In multiple African countries, studies have shown that the vast amount of healthcare expenditure is currently going towards ongoing chronic conditions like HIV AIDS, Tuberculosis, Malaria and Cancer which can last a life time. However, a shift to community care based on technological innovations in the future will provide an opportunity to not only reduce costs, but also shift the focus to patient centered care.Community care will definitely make Africans able to live in their homes much long and will have the data and facilities to be able to monitor their own health. African is also going to face an increasingly growing population, community centered care will enable African governments to support elderly and unwell people to stay in their homes longer in much better conditions than they currently do.Community centered care in Africa will improve Africans quality of life, because they are receiving care in their own home and have people around the support them. In researcher’s words, it will be a more structural and systematic shift that will be driven by cost and the quality of care that people seek. To an extent, it will also change the role of government in how they can best fulfil societal needs as efficiently as possible.In the next few years, Africa health industry will have the potential power requirements for new types of medical equipment and a large part of this will be ensuring flexibility when it comes to the layout of hospitals. As African population continues to increase, one of the key issues facing the health industry is around the size and number of facilities it has. There is argument that African countries need a greater distribution of facilities and that means smaller facilities that are more embedded into rural communities.

Health is a broad based industry and across Africa, innovators are combining medicine, science and the digital realm to create cures and treatments that can change lives. Remote health management is rapidly changing the way Africans live and interact with health carers. Doctors are already able to monitor their disabled, elderly and distant patients with the help of telehealth.They can check in with them remotely thanks to video and increasingly fast internet technology, and with the help of connected devices, can also monitor things like blood pressure, body weight, blood sugar and temperature.The ability of doctors to provide digital diagnosis relieves pressure on the current healthcare system and saves patients hours in travel time. 3D printing is also helping creation of prosthetics. Victims of war and combat injuries in countries like Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Central African Republic and South Sudan can have their damaged faces restored with the help of 3D printing. Several companies around the continent are working with families to test custom made prosthetic hands that function like their real counterparts. The benefit of 3D printing for prosthetics is that it’s fast and cheap, making it an affordable solution for growing children. I also know of companies in South Africa are also incorporating robotic elements, allowing 3D printed hands to move, grip and hold. In Zambia, thanks to robotic surgery, doctors are able to remotely liaise with machines, instructing or manipulating them to perform surgery with the ultimate precision.Procedures carried out by robots are minimally invasive and result in less scarring and a faster recovery. If Africans health is Africa wealth, my own imagined future will be a place where every African can be rich.

Contador Harrison