In our modern, connected world it’s easy to take the technology that surrounds us for granted. Structures like mobile phone masts, telephone junction boxes and power lines are so ubiquitous that we barely notice them, yet behind these everyday objects lie centuries of iteration and optimisation.
In places like the US and Europe, engineers and innovators have built layers upon layers of technology to connect rural areas to cities, from the earliest telegraph wires and local telephone infrastructure to today’s high-speed mobile data networks. But other parts of the world such as Africa and India, are skipping the tired, wired phase by going directly to country-wide wireless data infrastructure, ‘leapfrogging’ over now-obsolete intermediates to land straight at the end result.
Nowhere is this ‘leapfrogging’ technology more needed – and potentially game-changing – than in healthcare.
The African continent has a stark health record, bearing one-quarter of the global disease burden, with only three percent of the world’s healthcare workers and comprising just one percent of the world’s health expenditure.
With the notable exception of South Africa, most sub-Saharan African nations have around one doctor for every 5,000 people, compared with around 15 per 5000 in Europe. The problem is compounded by the fact that the vast majority of health workers in Africa – nearly 90% – live in cities, and specialist doctors and surgeons are vanishingly rare. This leaves rural areas all but bereft of medical care, with the nearest doctor often being hundreds of miles away.
It may seem a desperate situation, but innovative technology brings opportunities for abundant hope.
Creative and innovative solutions are coming fast, from mobile phone or tablet apps to 3D printing, or even drones delivering medical supplies to rural areas. All of these game-changing ideas can be delivered through wireless data networks, and are likely to gain rapid uptake and acceptance in countries that currently lack widespread wired telecoms infrastructure, as we’ve already seen with Africa’s mobile money boom since the introduction of M-pesa in 2007.
For example, if your nearest doctor is 200 km away, a smartphone app providing easily-searchable advice or a face-to-face consultation is the next best thing. One such mobile app is Babyl, launched in Rwanda in September 2016 and now carrying more than two million members. It allows patients to book medical appointments, pick up prescriptions and gives access to their medical records.
The service is provided in partnership with the Rwandan Ministry of Health and is free at the point-of-use to all Rwandans. But technology like this must also consider the local community and take steps to build trust. Babyl has over 500 grassroots ambassadors engaging with rural villages to ensure the benefits of the app are recognised.
Other mobile apps across the continent include SMS For Life, which has transformed supply chains for malaria drugs and other medication. Meanwhile South Africa’s MomConnect and NurseConnect provide a digital platform for pregnant women, mothers and nurses to get health advice and information.
Despite the technological march forwards, even in the Western world medical care is still largely reactive rather than proactive.
There are signs that this is changing, especially with genomics advances and the huge promise of precision medicine, and countries that are adopting mobile ‘leapfrog’ healthcare technologies have a huge amount to gain in this area.
Rather than using a ‘one size fits all’ approach, precision medicine uses genetic information to tailor treatment to the individual. But in order for people in developing countries to benefit from the promise of personalised medicine, it needs to be relevant to their genetic makeup. It is therefore vital to increase the diversity of data used in genomics research to improve the reliability of results, leading to better treatments and outcomes for all.
This perspective is especially pertinent for people of African descent, who have a rich genetic diversity not seen in European populations – something we are addressing with our upcoming collaboration in Namibia.
We believe everyone should be able to benefit from this new era of healthcare, wherever they come from and wherever they live.
There are still many challenges to be overcome before we see people able to enjoy healthier, longer and more productive lives in every part of the world. Investment in healthcare infrastructure and education needs to increase, but we firmly believe that our work with key partners in relevant countries is a great way forward.