How Africa’s digital health services are benefiting patients – DW – 01/13/2023

Harriet Uwansiga is one of the millions of Rwandans who have tried the services of Babel, a digital health service provider that supports a global patient network in 15 countries.

Three years ago, Babyl partnered with the Rwandan government to build Africa’s first digital universal primary care service, which aims to make health care more widely accessible across the small East African country.

Babel relies on the rapid spread of internet and phone services across Rwanda. Its services include health consultations, doctor appointments and more. Prescriptions, referrals and payment can all be arranged through SMS messages.

A smartphone user in Kampala, Uganda
Patients can use SMS and messaging apps to communicate with their healthcare providers Image: ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images

But Uwansiga remains skeptical. “I don’t trust this digital system,” she told DW. “There may be a wrong diagnosis and the patient may experience some symptoms similar to different diseases. It is better to see a doctor for a thorough examination.”

The idea behind Babel

Babel Rwanda is aware of this doubt. But it has tried to dispel any doubts with the elaborate philosophy that it dates back 2,500 years to the ancient city of Babylon.

“Citizens in need of medical advice often gathered in the town square to share thoughts about treatments for common ailments,” the company points out on its website. “This is one of the earliest examples of the democratization of health care.”

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The concept is simple: a registered patient sends an SMS code to arrange an appointment, and a doctor calls the patient’s mobile phone at the arranged time. The patient’s local pharmacy or healthcare facility will dispense the prescribed medication or perform laboratory tests in accordance with additional SMS codes sent via BabyL.

Close-up of hands packaging tablets in a pharmacy
Patients can collect the medicine from the local pharmacy after showing an SMS code Image: BARBARA DEBOUT/AFP/Getty Images

‘It’s not easy to enter the market’

Calliope Simba, Medical Director of Baby Rwanda, described the company’s road to success.

“It was not easy to break into the market due to low literacy in digital healthcare services,” said Simba DW. “We have another milestone to reach in ensuring that everyone in the country understands that it is possible to hold consultations online.”

Simba hopes that in the long run his services will help improve access to medical services and alleviate many of the problems caused by the sector’s many deficits.

He said that the human resource in the health sector is low and the doctor-patient ratio is 1 to 80,000. Also, many physicians and nurses prefer to work in cities, he said. Hence digital consultations will facilitate service delivery in rural areas.

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A cell phone displaying a text message
Prescriptions, referrals and payments can all be arranged through SMS messagesImage: SolidarMed

Digital services help reduce healthcare costs

Ensuring accessibility of health services remains a major challenge for many African countries. According to the World Health Organization, Africa has an average of three doctors per 10,000 people – Germany has 84 doctors per 10,000 people.

In African countries, health centers are often far away, equipment is inadequate and services are expensive, says the Global Perspectives Initiative, a German NGO working to develop new approaches to meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Health insurance is rare in Africa, where many people have to pay for medical services. In this case, digital services help to further reduce expenses such as traveling long distances to visit doctors.

African family relaxing with newspaper and tablet in bedroom
Smartphones and mobile devices are part of everyday life across AfricaImage: Blend Images/Hello Lovely/Chitra Alliance

Africa is at the forefront of digital health strategies

Hannah Holscher, project manager for global health at the Global Perspectives Initiative, spoke to DW about how digital technology has helped develop health services on the continent.

“The Life Bank of Nigeria offers a 24/7 service that delivers blood and oxygen directly to your home,” she said. “In Kenya, Suri Health runs a virtual hospital that allows doctors to make appointments.

“Africa has a young population, and many of these young people are well-educated and well-versed in digital technologies,” said Holscher. “Forty-one countries have developed digital health strategies. There are none in European countries.”

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However, funding for such programs is still a hurdle, calling for more investment in the sector.

Education is key to expanding infrastructure and health services

Michael Hobbins from Swiss NGO SolidarMed also highlighted Africa’s innovative potential. However, in the health sector, he sees great variation between countries and regions.

“You will find hospitals without computers or internet connections, and documentation is kept in large handwritten books,” Hobbins told DW.

“At times, papers containing data are transported several kilometers for digitization.” He also pointed out that others, mainly private hospitals in big cities, have gone digital.

Hobbins called for investment in infrastructure and education, noting the danger of relying on digital services in digitally illiterate areas. In such areas, he said, patients still rely on face-to-face contact.

Hobbins also pointed to several legal issues that still need to be clarified: Who has rights to patient information, who can access it, and how is it protected?

He said that digitalization is important in developing health services, but not the only one.

This article was originally written in German


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