Pandemic driving use of digital health solutions across Africa: Vodacom

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Africa’s healthcare sector is on the verge of digital transformation.

This is according to a policy paper that indicates that while governments are accelerating formal digital health strategies, 41 out of 54 African countries have a digital health strategy in place.

Vodacom’s e-health policy paper also finds that consumers are dramatically increasing their engagement with digital health services via their smartphones. Official data forecasts that by 2025, smartphone reach in sub-Saharan Africa will increase by almost 70 percent.

The policy paper indicates that as a result of increased smartphone reach, informal use of digital healthcare solutions has increased, with 41 percent of internet users across Africa regularly using their mobile phones to search for health information.

Overall, the policy paper notes that there has been an exponential rise in the number of people engaging with digital health services through their smartphones, creating vast potential for countries to deliver access to healthcare digitally.

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.

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Vodacom Group CEO Shameel Joosub says: “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 enormous opportunity – not only when it comes to the reach of healthcare services, but also to dramatically improved health outcomes at decreased costs.”

The findings

The policy paper states that there has been increased usage of digital health apps during the pandemic.

According to Apptopia, the Byon8 app, which offers access to online doctors and symptom check-ups, there was a 40 percent increase in engagement since March 2021.

Growing numbers of private sector players are also entering the sector to meet this demand.

Though the rise in engagement with informal healthcare systems is creating new opportunity, there is also significant risk in circumventing formal systems.

The policy paper states that there has been increased usage of digital health apps during the pandemic / UNSPLASH

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 69 percent of South Africans and 55 percent of Kenyans report that they have 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,” the policy paper poses.

A key question posed by the study is how countries across the continent can leverage the rise in usage of digital health solutions and integrate them into the formal health system.

It suggests three steps in resolving this challenge.

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The policy paper also recommends governments to lead the architecture of a national health ecosystem, in order to avoid the risks associated with healthcare workers and citizens going outside of 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.”

It also reveals that 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 is necessary to find a way of using these tools safely within the national health ecosystem,” the policy paper states.

The report was launched as part of the ‘Africa.connected’ campaign.

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 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,” Joosub said.

Wanjiku Njuguna is a Kenyan-based business reporter with experience of more than eight years.

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