In recent times, the novel coronavirus has forced a radical, paradigm shift in the way healthcare is practised all over the world. Many healthcare professionals have reinvented themselves to adopt innovative strategies to minimize the adverse impact of the pandemic.
Even before the peculiar challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past few years, healthcare systems across Africa have been facing acute challenges.
Despite being home to 13% of the global population, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), for example, bears 24% of the world’s disease burden – and despite this, only 3% of the world’s health workforce are in this subregion. Additionally, the region contributes up to just 1% of global healthcare expenditure.
Despite commendable efforts to ensure universal access to healthcare services, inequalities in spatial accessibility to healthcare remains a glaring threat to achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in many countries, including Ghana. Many countries in Africa continue to face shortages of health workforce, in the face of brain drain and inefficient distribution. The health workforce is disproportionately concentrated in major cities and towns
However, there are signs that a revolution is taking place across Africa with regard to how we approach our healthcare systems. Recent innovation efforts, particularly centred around the potential for mobile devices and the internet to facilitate healthcare delivery, have demonstrated the potential of digitalization to connect all Africans to both medications and medical advice. Sub-Saharan Africa has been aptly christened “the new breeding ground for digital health” by the Lancet in 2020.
Indeed, this wave of digitalization can, and already is, beginning to have transformative effects. It’s been estimated, for instance, that e-health accounts for about a tenth of the total number of funded start-ups in Africa.
Take Ghana. The government’s newly launched e-pharmacy platform looks set to lead the way in terms of providing a regulated and reliable way to access medications and pharmaceutical care services remotely Investment in the sector looks to be a smart move, with the global e-Pharmacy market currently valued at $52bn, while poor health reduces global GDP by 15% each year.
Launched by Vice President Dr Mahamudu Bawumia in tandem with the Pharmacy Council of Ghana, the National Electronic Pharmacy Platform (NEPP) will provide safe and secure access to prescription medications from registered pharmacies online.
In the words of Dr Bawumia, the e-pharmacy is ‘creating an enabling environment that will bring the pharmacy to your doorstep’.
The introduction of this platform will not only make medications accessible but also go some way in beginning to tackle some of the consequences of under-resourced healthcare systems.
For example, counterfeit medication has long been a challenge across Africa, with research from the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggesting these unofficial and often dangerous knock-off medications are responsible for approximately 100,000 deaths per annum.
With Africa accounting for 42% of the world’s cases involving counterfeit drugs, introducing easier and more convenient ways to access legitimate medication in the country is a utilitarian move.
Other countries, therefore, would do well to observe Ghana’s initiative, as Ghana’s e-pharmacy will require licensed pharmacies in the country to be registered on the digital platform, providing peace of mind to the platform’s users.
Similarly, in South Africa, the Department for Health has embraced the opportunities presented by mobile technology to support pregnant women and new mothers with their online ‘MomConnect’ platform.
MomConnect has connected over 2 million women to essential services and information via a digital helpdesk since 2014. With over 500,000 messages received since its inception, the platform is truly changing the face of maternal care in South Africa.
But change is not only taking place in the public sector across Africa. The private sector is also embracing the digital revolution in healthcare, with huge growth taking place in the business-to-business (B2B) sector in the past year.
According to global health consultancy Salient Advisory, the digitisation of supply chains and distribution to healthcare providers has been most impressive in the African healthcare sector.
This kind of innovation allows for the use of tech-enabled solutions that digitalize and distribute medicine to areas that would otherwise be under-served by pharmacies, clinics and hospitals, widely improving access.
Other successful private sector digital healthcare initiatives in Africa are consumer-facing – such as SASADoctor, based in Kenya. A 24-hour medical app with over 127,000 registered patients, which provides an alternative method for Kenyans to access and interact with doctors and other medical professionals via their mobile devices.
It’s no surprise that those at the top of government are looking to this sector to play a role in their post-pandemic recovery.
Digitalization of healthcare is by no means the magic bullet to address all the challenges that confront our healthcare sector. In fact, electronic health solution in our region will be fraught with some challenges of their own. Yet, examples of best practice through digitalization can be looked to as inspiration for other nations and organisations hoping to make a difference in health outcomes across the continent.
By: Harry Amoaning Okyere
Harry Amoaning Okyere is a Pharmacist, a Public Health expert and a researcher. With over five years of providing quality pharmaceutical care services in the community, he is currently responsible for Strategic Planning at the Pharmaceutical Society of Ghana. He obtained his degree in Pharmacy and Master’s in Public Health at the University of Ghana and is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Pharmacy at the same University. He is also the managing editor for the Ghana Pharmaceutical Journal. Harry believes strongly that digitalization in healthcare will help the country achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #3.