While the Smart Villages Initiative is delighted to be quoted in this week’s Economist article on energy leapfrogging in Africa, there are a noteworthy number of articles this week about energising health provision as well.
In a city or town, the obvious thing to do if somebody gets sick is for them to go and see a doctor, perhaps in a hospital, although of course affordability of healthcare remains a global problem. Getting sick in a rural area, or simply needing medical help (for example, during childbirth) is much worse, because it often means that there is no doctor or medical facility nearby. Just to travel to a place with a clinic may require a significant investment in time and money, and this situation leads to a terrible dilemma. This cost could be economically crippling to the household and increase its vulnerability to other adversities, but the alternative may be losing a loved one to something that may have been preventable and/or treatable. Over 400 million people lack access to essential health services, particularly in rural areas. Yet, everybody agrees access to primary healthcare is a basic human right.
The provision of healthcare in rural areas in developing countries faces several problems, which include lack of basic infrastructure, such as roads, electricity, clean water and sanitation; limited education; and the fact that medical professionals, in particular advanced practitioners, tend to concentrate in urban centres. One strategy often pursued by governments is to deploy community health workers, or enlist self-help groups (such as women’s groups in this example in Ethiopia), which can be an effective way of sharing information on how to prevent infectious diseases, improve mother and child’s health and reduce the incidence of non-communicable diseases. Critically, impact requires simultaneously targeting other underlying causes of poor health, for example, low agricultural productivity (linked to poverty) and inadequate child nutrition, and lack of sanitation. In other words, what is needed are increased investments in rural development and effective reforms.
Having no access to electricity affects health provision at multiple levels: from the obvious problems that result from the lack of light during night time births and the inability to keep vaccines and medicines cold, to the difficulty of attracting and keeping health professionals in off-grid areas. On the other hand, innovations in eHealth -healthcare provision enabled by electronic processes and communication – are revolutionising the sector. We feature three news items on this topic this week.
The first is press release of the Cooperation Agreement between the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which was signed in Geneva at the end of last month, to use digital services for saving lives and improving people’s health. The second news article describes how telemedicine and artificial intelligence have enabled health tech platforms to emerge in Africa, a continent where many countries have less than one physician per 10,000 people. While it would be easier to suppose that most innovations rely on mobile phone technology, the third news article featured today contradicts this assumption. According to the Exploring the African E-health Startup Ecosystem Report 2017, released by Disrupt Africa, 115 e-health startups are currently operating in 20 countries across the continent. Of these, only 44% reach their customers by using mobile phones.