Mobile healthcare (mHealth) applications that run on mobile phones could be held up in African countries owing to a lack of regulations governing the privacy of patient data, a report has found.
Some patients could refuse to allow personal information to be collected by mHealth applications, fearing a lack of security, which calls for urgent drafting of policy by governments to guarantee protection of patient data, the authors say.
The report, by TrustLaw Connect, a pro bono legal initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, and supported by partners including the mHealth Alliance, examines the global status of patient privacy on mHealth and includes case studies on countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
It finds that most African countries have not implemented comprehensive data privacy laws like those existing in Europe, and have also not enacted laws that provide broad protection for health data such as measures passed in the United States.
None of the three case studies in Africa — Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda — have amended their health acts to regulate data for mHealth, with Nigeria relying on a code of conduct to guide practitioners on data protection.
"The primary risk of not having explicit laws assuring patient confidentiality is that many people may avoid accessing necessary services," William Philbrick, technical advisor at the mHealth Alliance, tells SciDev.Net.
"This is particularly true when we are talking about HIV, which still carries considerable stigma, and women may also be reluctant to seek out health services for sexual and reproductive health out of concern that their personal health information is shared with third parties," he adds.
But South Africa could assure privacy because its constitution guarantees confidentiality of patient information, and Kenya is reviewing her health policy and will incorporate ehealth and mHealth, according to Esther Ogara, head of eHealth (electronic health) at Kenya's health ministry.
She says that mHealth is a new branch of healthcare that has great potential to save lives but is still evolving in Africa, and so there is an absence of laws in many countries.
"It is very important to have a law dealing with data security that ensures patient confidentiality, but countries must continue to deploy mHealth tools to save lives while they formulate laws," she says.
Philbrick agrees that the absence of laws should not hold up life-saving applications, adding that technology developers are filling data protection gaps by including security components in mHealth applications and platforms.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.