We know about the growing importance of mobile banking in Africa, but the mobile revolution is proving even more essential: it can save lives.
With over 650 million phone subscribers, according to the World Bank, Africa is a bigger mobile market than the US or the EU. It is transforming many key areas: banking, agriculture, training, and the one we will focus on here, health.
Medicine is increasingly dependent on technology, which in turn require a lot of energy to function. It is not easy to bring all that to isolated and/or deprived areas, and it is no less difficult to bring people who need care to fully equipped facilities. This is where mobile health –or e-health, or telemedicine– comes in, contributing to turn Africa into an Information and Communication Technology leader, beyond the borders of Kenya or Senegal. Here are a few examples of how this revolution operates:
FHI 360 created this program to improve family planning services. It consists of an opt-in SMS-based health communication program that provides information about family planning methods, fighting misconceptions prevalent among youth. The pilot took place in Kenya and Tanzania in 2010 and 2011, and was a success, triggering some changes in behaviour. As a result, FHI 360 is also implementing the program in Rwanda.
This program, created in Uganda, also provides health-related information, in a more global manner. Sent SMS contain quizzes about general medicine knowledge, information about local clinics, and give some advice in terms of treatment and prevention. It has been active since 2008, and over 8.5 million texts have been sent, carrying vital messages about HIV, maternal health or nutrition. It is now used in many African countries, such as Kenya, Tanzania or Namibia and has even made its way to Bolivia.
Those programs make it convenient to keep in touch with patients, send them relevant information, and make sure they keep track of their treatment. But mobile health goes further. Just like all over the world, most specialists live and work in big cities, making access to specific care difficult for patients leaving in remote areas. Travelling all the way to those cities usually is time-consuming, expensive, and most of the time simply not a solution. If it has to be done, patients would rather be sure it is an absolute necessity. Using mobile technologies, health professionals in rural areas can send pictures, lists of symptoms, and any relevant information to their colleagues working in bigger hospitals.
On a broader scale, crowdsourcing projects are developing, improving the diagnosis of complex cases. MEDTING for instance, provides a collaborative platform which enables professionals to share cases and get second opinions. They also offer e-learning solutions. This another key trend that might help solve another burning issue: the lack of trained health professionals outside of the big cities.
Here is a report from the BBC in Kenya, to illustrate the mobile health trend.