Mobile phone penetration in Africa has grown tremendously in the last decade. Between 1998 and 2010, the continent witnessed an increase from 0.53 per 100 people to 42.82 per 100 people. This increase in penetration has translated to improved economic growth for Africa. The mobile ecosystem contributed $75 billion to Africa’s GDP in 2013 and it is expected to grow to $104 billion by 2020. While impacting economic growth, mobile technology is also revolutionizing the future of healthcare by improving access in the continent, which is the home to nine of the ten worst healthcare systems in the world.
Most deaths in Africa occur due to lack of accessible care. However, one thing a large percentage of Africans have access to is mobile network. This opens up a path to reaching Africa’s underserved population. Mobile technologies hold the promise to change how care is given and received, as well as cut costs while improving accessibility.
When a 27-year-old pregnant mother of three, Faith Kuwornu was infected with cholera in 2014, she consulted health officials in Ghana through her mobile phone. “When I first called the community health nurse at dawn, she offered first aid on the telephone before she arrived at my house with another nurse an hour later. I was treated with Oral Rehydration Salts and Zinc tablets and rushed to the hospital because of my pregnancy. They saved my life and the unborn baby,” she says. All she did was call a nurse.
Eric Topol, a professor of genomics at the Scripps Research Institute was quoted in areport from The Economist Intelligence Unit, to have said: “Wherever there is a mobile signal, there is the capability for delivering better healthcare”. This has worked for Keta, a town in the Volta Region of Ghana where average cholera cases of 100 were recorded between 2008 and 2013.
“Aside from cholera and other diarrhoeal diseases, malaria cases increase any time it floods,” says Dr. Andrews Ayim, the Keta Municipal Health Director.
The 2014 flooding in Ghana resulted from rising sea levels caused by climate change. While insanitary conditions cause diarrhoea and cholera among the affected population, health workers found it difficult to reach the affected people, usually cut off by floods. Keta was also affected by the flooding but it had something others did not have: Teleconsultation – an innovation to quicken surveillance response and provide prompt health care to people in remote areas and other places cut off by the effects of climate change such as extreme flooding.
Leveraging on mobile telephony, the initiative provides medical consultation services on mobile phones to patients and health facilities at referral levels.
More than 28,000 cases of cholera were recorded in 2014 in Ghana, with 200 people dying as a result of the disease. However, no death was recorded in Keta.
The project, an initiative of the Climate Change and Health project, supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Global Environmental Facility (GEF) provided about 30 android-enabled mobile phones, preloaded monthly with 500 minutes of talk-time and 20MB mobile data to doctors and nurses at 11 health centres and six community health facilities in Keta. The project also trained 180 disease surveillance volunteers across the area.
“Anytime community health nurses encounter a situation that they cannot manage at their level they call senior officers for advice so that referrals are reduced to the minimum,” UNDP quoted Perfect Titiati, a Principal Health Nurse to have said.
Mobile health is becoming very popular in Africa where literacy levels have not hindered mobile penetration. While the continent continues working on improving infrastructure across boarders, in order to increase access to quality and affordable healthcare, mobile health can help minimize deaths caused by preventable, curable diseases.