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Letter - Opportunities and challenges for healthcare in Africa

2020-10-30  Staff Reporter

Letter - Opportunities and challenges for healthcare in Africa
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From Addis Ababa to Windhoek there has been a lot of hype about the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) from heads of state, tech evangelists and futurists, narrating the disruptive effects that the technological revolution will have on jobs and economies. However, little emphasis has been made about the transformation and improvements that 4IR can bring to a sector such as healthcare, which is critical for the wellbeing of, and a prosperous, society. This article aims to outline the prospects and challenges 4IR will have on healthcare in Africa.
In recent years, we have witnessed the unprecedented increase in the generation of data, produced by smartphones, sensors and other devices. In an attempt to deal with these large volumes of unconventional data, the term data revolution (big data) was coined, leveraging on complex technology to process and derive insights from data. Big data is an important component of the fourth industrial revolution, enabling artificial intelligence to derive new knowledge that can help improve processes and data driven models to support clinical decision-making for better healthcare.

The term fourth industrial revolution originated from the World Economic Forum (WEF) to describe a technological transformation era, characterized by a combination of technologies: digital, physical and biological. At the centre of this transformation is automation, i.e. artificial intelligence and robotics. Analysts predict that 70% of existing jobs will become obsolete by the end of the century as a result of automation. But as an optimist, I believe that artificial intelligence and automation will not take away jobs but will transform existing jobs and create new ones. The only catch is that these new jobs will require everyone to understand machine language. We are already beginning to see this – machines are outperforming doctors in the diagnosis of some chronic diseases. 

For many years healthcare systems have been focused on volumes of procedures as opposed to the quality of treatment being delivered. This has resulted in unsustainable costs, while patient outcome remained the same. As a solution, value-based or quality-based systems have been proposed. At the centre of value-based system is personalized treatment, which aims to individualise treatment for every patient based on their observed characteristics. Personalised treatment is very reliant on data. These data may be widely distributed, in different countries or institutions. However, health data remains confidential, and its sharing is prohibited by law in some countries. Also, in the majority of African countries healthcare data are still stored in filing cabinets. These data need to be digitized and secure techniques explored to regulate its sharing.

Despite these challenges, we are seeing new innovations, leveraging on data and digital technologies to improve, increase access and make healthcare affordable across the continent. In some countries SMS and other messaging services are being used for patient education, reducing risk factors for chronic and epidemic diseases. Rwanda is using drones to deliver blood and test results in remote areas. Another African-based innovation is M-SCAN (TechCrunch battlefield Africa 2018 winner), an affordable mobile ultrasound device compatible with mobile gadgets such as tablets, smartphones and laptops. M-SCAN has the potential to save mothers during pregnancy and reduce infant mortality across the continent.

But one major challenge is how do we increase the impact of African-based innovations? This will require a holistic and multi-dimensional approach, including collaborative efforts between African governments, the private sector and academia to fund research and development and policies that prioritise the procurement of African-based innovations/products over imports.  

Despite fusing different technologies such as blockchain and artificial intelligence, 4IR will not miraculously solve all healthcare issues on the continent but together with innovations it can pave the way for affordable, inclusive and quality healthcare for all. 
No doubt, the future of healthcare is patient- tailored. Africa cannot be left behind, hence, it has to leapfrog and seize the moment. Empower its youthful population to capitalise on 4IR to create innovative solutions that will address some of its pressing health challenges such as cancer, tuberculosis, infant-mortality, HIV/AIDS and future pandemics.
*Lameck Mbangula Amugongo is a technology activist and a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester, UK. He holds a BSc IT, BSc (Hons) and a Master’s degree in Computer Science, and is a Mandela Washington Fellow (2017). The views expressed are his own.

2020-10-30  Staff Reporter

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