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The business of healthcare

There is no question that the healthcare sector in Africa represents a huge challenge and opportunity. The question is how, and how well, ICT will meet the challenge.

BY  Lauri E. Elliott and Hilton Tarrant , 2 December 20090 comments


Most African countries have a critical shortage of healthcare workers, and the majority of African healthcare systems are low-ranked internationally, according to the World Health Organisation.

Dr Dirk Koekies, Chief Executive Officer of GeoAxon, states plainly that the challenge is “creating a healthcare system out of nothing, which can deliver quality basic primary healthcare services to those without it”.

While this situation is a critical challenge, it presents a tremendous opportunity for ICT in the health sector. The opportunity is particularly good in the mobile sector (mHealth) due to the penetration of mobile phones on the continent.

The United Nations 2009 report mHealth for Development says: “Mobile phones reach further into developing countries than other technology and health infrastructures.”

One mantra for mHealth is “make available the right information at the right place at the right time and in the correct form,” according to a 2008 Rockefeller Foundation report.

This mantra, when actualised, translates to several benefits, according to Tyson Greer, CEO of Ambient Insights.

First, clinicians and patients can make more informed and intelligent decisions. Second, real-time data is provided for communication, consultation and notification. Third, mHealth increases efficiency and speed of care, and increases productivity of healthcare workers. And finally, it provides on-demand access to information and continual learning for healthcare professionals.

There is a unique opportunity to provide ICT-based products and services to the private healthcare sector.

Firstly, because private sector healthcare already represents a good portion of services provided to Africans compared to public healthcare. And secondly, African governments are using private healthcare providers to augment and enhance public healthcare systems, which are overtaxed.

This creates a sizable opportunity for ICT firms. Specific business opportunities in mHealth, according to the mHealth in Development report, include education and awareness, remote data collection, remote monitoring, communication and training for health care workers, disease and epidemic outbreak tracking, and diagnostic and treatment support. Koekies also says that developing centralised, electronic medical information records is a low-hanging fruit opportunity.

GeoAxon is delving into business opportunities presented in diagnostic and treatment support. Its “Telemedicine Doctor in a Box” allows a doctor to examine a patient over the internet, using devices the patient interacts with locally. These devices transmit data, which would normally be assessed in a face-to-face consultation with a doctor, remotely to the physician.

While mHealth seems to be gaining momentum, it still has several challenges. mHealth is still in the pioneer stage with many projects in pilot, but little empirical evidence to prove its impact. Koekies indicates that funding for innovative solutions is still difficult to come by. And while the technology may be there, the ecosystem for the mHealth sector is still immature.

Recognising that eHealth*, and mHealth, are still emerging markets in Africa with high potential, ICT firms might want to first look for low-hanging fruit opportunities and those that leverage its strengths.

Big opportunity

The healthcare market is huge. A recent report by research and consulting outfit Markets and Markets says the healthcare IT systems market will be worth $53.8 billion in five years’ time.

One of the major areas of growth in the space is telemedicine. This is by no means new technology, with policies put in place and applications created over a decade ago.

A new push, by networking giant Cisco, is through a pilot programme demonstrating that telemedicine is real and it works. The so-called HealthPresence programme saw remote clinics linked up in Aberdeen, Scotland and San Jose, California.

This service provides what Cisco terms “care at-a-distance over the network”. It uses Cisco’s TelePresence teleconferencing technology, with patients and physicians able to see life-sized images of one another. The system also collects physiological data from a variety of linked devices such as a stethoscope, blood pressure cuff, pulse oximeter and other diagnostic equipment.

The Aberdeen trial started in January last year and found that 90 percent of the patients who used the technology were satisfied with the experience, 95 percent said the visit felt confidential and 93 percent said they would recommend it.

“In almost every case, we could accurately identify the degree of urgency and make a diagnosis,” said Dr James Ferguson, national clinical lead for the Scottish Centre for Telehealth.

He added: “Cisco HealthPresence can enable us to deal safely and effectively with 90 percent of the cases we see.”

The Medical Research Council is currently running five separate telemedicine projects around the country.

Obviously bandwidth constraints mean that the implementation of telemedicine is difficult in both South Africa and Africa. In addition to bandwidth, the MRC identifies other obstacles such as the lack of easy-to-use, robust diagnostic instruments and no dedicated telemedicine centre to act as a hub for telemedicine.

The deployment of terrestrial fibre networks in South and East Africa, as well as the commissioning of Seacom, has helped solve the bandwidth problem, however.

At a recent exhibition, Seacom showcased healthcare teleconferencing applications, and earlier this year at GovTech 2009, Moses

Mtimunye, then acting CEO of Sita, said that in the near future, similar technologies to Cisco’s TelePresence “will make for commercially available telemedicine projects providing people in rural areas with world-class healthcare services”.

The national Department of Health says its long-term goal is to “make telemedicine live up to its potential as a valuable tool to improve access to high-quality and cost-effective health care services in South Africa”.

Beyond structured implementation of telemedicine systems, Cisco believes that HealthPresence could mean a revolution: “Instead of making a dash to an urgent care facility or emergency room, what if you could use your television or other networked device to connect with a medical centre?”

Cisco believes this is not fantasy, it reckons it could become reality within the next three to five years.

*eHealth is the use of ICT for health services and information.

Tags: healthcare  Africa  challenge  ICT  


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