How we can capitalise on mHealth opportunities in Africa

   

Mobile Health or mHealth is one of the newest aspects of 21st-century healthcare. It has tremendous potential to make healthcare more accessible, faster and cost effective.

Not only is it becoming an expanding field of medicine but it’s also a rapidly expanding billion dollar industry.¬†According to a report published in the Economist, the global revenues of mHealth are forecasted to reach $21,5 billion in 2018.

image credit - The Economist
image credit – The Economist

This is remarkable considering that 2013 total revenues were under $5 billion. All this is driven by the increasing number and range of health-related apps and mobile devices available on the market.

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Most of the projected revenues are expected to come from North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific regions where more apps are likely to have established commercial business models.

Our region contributes less than the others mainly because sadly healthcare in Africa is often less of a commercial approach. As it stands it is mostly funded by a different kind of investor – the donor agencies.

These multinational entities have invested in solving perennial problems such as HIV/AIDS, TB, and Malaria in Africa and are realising the need to innovate in search of more cost-effective solutions.

This has driven them to turn towards mHealth culminating in big opportunities for both tech and health professionals. Some of these opportunities are also open to Zimbabweans.

US-based Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation recently announced a request for proposals inviting potential consultants to develop a mobile application that will record select patient information which will be used to track patients’ clinic appointments, send automated SMS reminders of clinic appointment date, facilitate patient tracking and report on chosen outcomes as part of a comprehensive HIV and TB prevention, care and treatment program.

The project is intended for implementation in 121 health facilities throughout Lesotho. If you are interested you can download the full bid documents from the EGPAF website. You will have to hurry though because the final deadline is the 29th of March 2016!

The US Embassy in Harare also announced a great opportunity for mHealth intervention through the Dreams Innovation Challenge which is offering a potential $85million.

According to its website “DREAMS is seeking innovative solutions to further DREAMS’ commitment to reduce HIV infections by infusing new thinking and high-impact approaches to meet the urgent, complex needs of adolescent girls and young women in 10 sub-Saharan African countries.”

They are calling on all innovators (including mHealth innovators) to apply before the 28th of March 2016.

There is quite a demand for innovation in health although not all opportunities will nakedly present themselves as these. A Ministry of Health official who attended the recently held 46th World Conference on Lung Health in Cape Town informed me that the bulk of discussions they had, mentioned or advocated for the incorporation of technology or mHealth.

The key to meeting this demand for innovation in health is a collaboration between health professionals and the IT experts or software developers. However, my personal experiences in Zimbabwe have been quite disappointing. It has proved to be quite a nightmare finding a skilled and experienced software developer who can choose to spare enough time to work on an idea.

This is particularly the case if there is no money available upfront for the initial development. It then becomes a tragic case of myopia. Donor agencies are the biggest investors in healthcare in Africa. However convincing them to accept a new mHealth based innovation usually requires a demonstration by means of a working prototype. This is what some developers then fail to appreciate and end up sidelining or literally sitting on the ideas we health professionals would have put forward.

Conversely, the tech community has also been victim to the health profession’s myopia. An example is the negative response that Econet’s Dial a Doc got from the Medical and Dental Practitioner’s Council of Zimbabwe.

Part of the solution lies in teaching health professionals to code. A greater part of it is establishing mutual understanding between the co-dependent health and tech communities.

mHealth is a developing industry with billions of dollars to be made and more importantly, lives to be served and saved. For us to capitalize on the opportunities mHealth presents we must realize that teamwork makes the dream work.


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