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Africa’s quest to achieve health care for all needs an unorthodox approach

Friday, 9 February 2018 11:26 GMT

Medical practitioners attend to cholera patients inside a special ward at the Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya July 19, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

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Africa’s quest for health and sustainable economic development continues to be held back by a combination of factors such as natural disasters and pandemics, prevailing high rates of communicable and rising non-communicable diseases, sedentary lifestyles, road accidents and population mobility. 

With the region accounting for approximately a quarter of the world’s disease burden and just 3% of its doctors, it is difficult to be optimistic about the future.

Every year one million people in Kenya, fall into poverty and stay poor due to a catastrophic health shock.  Nearly 11 million Africans fall into poverty due to high out-of-pocket payments for healthcare, even as the continent is expected to provide access to essential health services, medicines and vaccines for all its citizens by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals agreed on globally.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has prioritised Universal Health Coverage (UHC) for all in his second term.

It is obvious that to achieve UHC, more resources will not only have to be mobilized, but new partnerships must also be forged, such as the one between United Nations, Government of Kenya and technology company Philips, to improve access to health care in hard to reach communities. New models of blended financing including impact investing and community insurance schemes are needed and resources need be used more efficiently

The Better Business Better World Africa Report shows how health care delivery challenges can be turned into large business opportunities with a potential value of US$259 billion creating over 16 million jobs by 2030.

Innovation Tech could be a game-changer in diagnostics, health information, supply chain management, health financing, and even remote tele-surgery performed by robotic arms.

Few frontiers provide greater potential for African countries to achieve UHC than information technology.  "Just as mobile payments have transformed Kenyan markets, I think innovations in the health sector- from machine learning algorithms that help diagnose disorders, to digitized prescriptions that make drugs more affordable- could have a transformative impact on health, quality of life, and the efficiency of our investments in healthcare," says Dr. Temina Madon, Executive Director for the Center for Effective Global Action at U.C. Berkeley.

A crucial enabling factor is the continent’s impressive mobile penetration profile. Africa is getting interconnected through leapfrogging technology. With prices falling, smartphone penetration doubling between 2014-2016 and expected to surpass 50% by 2020, innovative technology will open health systems to the poorest.

Google Researchers have trained image recognition algorithms to auto-detect diabetes related eye disease by analysing retinas, to help prevent blindness.

Stanford University innovators are creating a cell-phone-based, mosquito-monitoring platform where submitted mosquito buzzing produces global mosquito distribution maps.

Drones are revolutionizing supply chain management systems in Rwanda and Tanzania, drastically reducing blood delivery time for patients at risk of dying.

With the ubiquity of smartphones and specialist doctor shortage, texting a physician and obtaining a prescription can be done in a flash. Dropping ICT prices could make telemedicine the future norm of medicine.

Dashboard systems will help policy makers and implementers monitor progress, impacts and identify improvement areas. GIS can provide geographically-referenced data, identifying disease patterns and trends.

These innovations will ensure strengthening of health systems and efficient, effective resource usage.

Fortunately, these already exist, many at pilot-level. The price of failing to leverage opportunities will be a slower march towards economic progress, as families continue to use up life savings, sell assets, borrow to meet health care costs.

A demographic dividend looms in Africa, countries need to capitalize employment opportunities in the health sector, as a young army of tech-savvy community health workers reach the last mile, offsetting  doctor and nurse shortages.

UNDP’s Administrator Mr. Achim Steiner has underscored the importance of multi-sectoral partnerships as a vehicle to attain UHC. he says they “are key in connecting players nationally and globally, across sectors and silos to drive progress on UHC”.

This is exactly what the SDG Partnership Platform in Kenya is catalysing – harnessing global tech innovations and intellectual firepower to serve Africa with public-private investments to achieve UHC  for basic human dignity and as a springboard for greater economic growth. 

This is how Kenya can lead the way in achieving UHC.

Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Kenya.                                   

Radhika Shah is Co-President Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs