By Kaakpema Yelpaala
Launched in 2012, the East Africa Healthcare Federation (EAHF) convenes private and public sector stakeholders to discuss topical issues relating to the private health sector. The private sector plays an important role in health service delivery in East Africa. While the numbers vary greatly by country, the private sector employs and trains a large number of health workers, delivers critical health services, and plays an important part in driving improved standards for health consumers.
The EAHF held its 4th annual conference May 17th to 19th in Kigali, Rwanda. The conference brought together delegates from all five East African countries as well as representatives from West Africa interested in sharing knowledge across regions. Topics ranged from policy to public-private partnerships to medical tourism and attendees included regional business leaders, development representatives, government officials and academics. While not the core focus of the conference, the role of technology innovation in enhancing healthcare service delivery and patient care was an underlying and pervasive theme. Indeed, an important session at the event was entitled “New regional trends in technology and mHealth.” Below is a brief summary of three key themes that I observed from the conference related to the role of information and communication technology (ICT) in healthcare.
Theme 1: Telemedicine as a Model for Healthcare Service Delivery
During a panel of Ministers of Health at the EAHF, one Minister commented that in 2015, based on research he has seen, East Africans will spend an estimated USD 1 billion on healthcare services in India. Affluent East Africans often seek specialized healthcare services outside of Sub-Saharan Africa, traveling to India, Southeast Asia, the Middle East or Europe. Turning to other regions of the world for medical services drains resources from East African health systems, is inconvenient for the people making the journeys abroad, and is unaffordable for most East Africans. However, embedded in this sensitive issue is an opportunity – telemedicine. Telemedicine and associated technologies can help create access to high quality care within and between countries in East Africa and simultaneously capture the value from healthcare spending that would otherwise happen out of market. The role of telemedicine in healthcare was a recurring topic at the event, including how it can increase access to health services where doctors are not widely available or when specialists are needed.
Theme 2: “Where is the Innovation? – Debates on Context-Appropriate Solutions
A panel entitled “New regional trends in technology and mHealth” presented a range of solutions, from biometric systems for health insurance claims developed by a company called Smart Applications International to mobile money innovations for health consumers. After the presentations, an audience member got up and asked the panelists, “Where is the innovation?” The comment elicited a mix of chuckles, puzzled looks and some silent stares. The audience member then listed a number of health technology innovations from Western markets, such as biometric solutions linked to mobile phones, as being on the cutting edge of the field while the panelists were largely talking about solutions that seemed a bit dated from an innovation perspective. The questioner was provocative but had an important point. In the health sector, as in many other sectors, there is an opportunity for leapfrog innovations, however context is critical. Health providers in East Africa are often not tied to legacy technology systems. Innovators do not necessarily need to think incrementally about technology evolution in their health facilities and they are often constrained in their decision making by practicalities and tight budgets. For example, outsourcing of various aspects of back office operations was one area discussed at the EAHF as a way to drive efficiency and save money for hospital operations. In Western markets, disruptive innovation can be difficult, due to barriers from legacy technology systems and a stifling landscape of fragmented stakeholders. Health technology innovations tailored to the African context often involve elegant, simple solutions that make sense to businesses and consumers, rather than the most advanced new technologies.
Theme 3: Emerging Solutions at the Intersection of Mobile Money and Health Financing
Lastly, some interesting solutions were presented at the intersection of mobile money and health savings accounts, such as Afya Poa and the mHealth wallet of the PharmAccess Foundation. These concepts suggest the feasibility of a “ring-fenced wallet for healthcare” as described during a presentation by a senior representative from the PharmAccess Foundation at the event. Mobile money accounts linked to health savings are particularly pertinent in situations when consumers are unable or unwilling to access health insurance or where social organizations want patients to target resources for specific purposes. These solutions can also be used for healthcare vouchers and other incentives for health consumers to seek care when needed.
In summary, while there are many opportunities and challenges in the private health sector, ICT for health continues to be an important topic. As evident at the EAHF conference, there are opportunities for innovators in East Africa to blend cutting-edge technology with context-appropriate design, solving real problems for health providers and consumers.
(The writer is Founder and CEO of access.mobile, Inc. and was a participant at the conference. Uganda is planned to host the 2016 East Africa Healthcare Federation conference).
This blog originally appeared on CIO East Africa. Reposted with permission from the author.