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Amazing Africa

What the continent can teach us about digital health innovation

Amazing Africa

When you see the words 'Africa' and 'health' in the same paragraph, you can't be blamed for expecting them to accompany some bad news or statistic. HIV/AIDS, malaria, famine, Ebola: there is a reason why the World Health Organization (WHO) considers it to be the region confronting the most dramatic public health crisis across the globe¹. But for each of the challenges that Africa faces, there are twice as many opportunities to solve them. And it doesn't take long to find examples of exciting and innovative work that many 'developed' markets would be lucky to learn from.

Communications-wise, Africans have a unique digital profile. They haven't traversed the same technological arch as we have come to expect, and have instead jumped straight from near-zero connectivity to the smartphone. Landlines and PCs may not have been the stepping stones to a wired up world as they were in Europe and the United States, but the continent has caught up quickly: nearly two-thirds of homes in sub-Saharan Africa now own at least one mobile phone.

So what does this mean for healthcare? Well to start, it means that society is ready for pocket-sized solutions. Within the past few years, mobile phone payments have become commonplace in Africa, bringing big business banking to the fingertips of many rural communities. Workers who before had no access to current accounts, microloans or instant earnings, are now able to manage their finances at the touch of a button. Just imagine what could be achieved if the same communication technology was directed towards health.

Society is ready for pocket-sized healthcare solutions

The good news is, many groups are already having these very same thoughts. Much of the region's mobile innovation is being driven by a group of African technologists, coders and entrepreneurs known as 'Silicon Savannah'. Here, start-ups are attracting unprecedented amounts of venture capital funding, and many are intent on using this to find smart, novel ways to bring modern healthcare to the developing world.

Focusing on the patient
Take the age old-problem of non-adherence. We have known the financial and medical costs of the issue for some time now, but finally we are starting to see some potential answers. Across Africa, simple SMS reminders are being used to prompt patients with diseases like diabetes or psoriasis to take their medication, avoid triggers and generally better manage their condition. We've developed apps to assist mothers in monitoring and managing a wide range of childhood illnesses, many of which start with a tell-tale fever. Without having to travel miles to a clinic, in a few swipes they can identify symptoms and be alerted to when and where they should seek medical assistance. And not only can simple behavioural change techniques be delivered through the mobile medium, but they can be personalised to the individual: increasing both the relevance and effectiveness of the intended information. 

Initiatives like these are a great way to start putting the patient at the centre of any healthcare journey. 

Assisting practioners
At the same time, patients are not alone in their treatment, which is why it is essential that digital innovation is also directed towards the healthcare professionals who are looking after them. We've been partnering with some of our most forward-thinking African clients on projects that help time pressured clinicians understand, define and then treat each patient at the most individual level possible. One of our most popular digital services has been the creation of 3D animations, which can quickly and powerfully depict a brand's mode of action (MoA), allowing the product's unique benefits to be brought to life. With a similar aim in mind, we've used augmented reality to illustrate the advanced technology behind a leading range of toothpaste: a unique and memorable way to differentiate the brand in the mind of dental professionals. And in order to help doctors select the most suitable patients for a drug (and thereby help patients achieve the best health outcomes), we recommend the use of patient profiling tools such as animated e-detailing, audio visuals and experimental marketing. For if prescribers can experience specific symptoms for themselves, they are significantly more likely to empathise and identify with the next patient who presents them. For me, this is digital innovation in its most human form.

Harnessing advanced technology
Now no matter how developed a continent may be, the need for continued professional development (CPD) remains pressing. In Africa, where doctor-to-patient ratios are some of the lowest in the world, this need becomes a matter of urgency. We believe in the practice of 'blended learning', whereby multiple touchpoints are integrated into a stimulating and accessible programme for the healthcare professional. As Africa's mobile connectivity soars, the use of SMS, email and online portals will allow doctors to keep on top of required knowledge without having to physically attend a seminar or training session. Combine this with cutting-edge innovations such as digital holograms and interactive touch-screens, and you won't be hearing anyone complain about a boring medical conference ever again.

Advances in Africa
So what do I believe the Western world can learn from the African experience? Well firstly, that clever tech doesn't always have to mean high tech. The most effective healthcare communication examples I have seen are ones that acknowledge the realities of this chaotic continent. Often, it is a mix of both high and low tech that is able to achieve the most affordable and effective outcomes: there is no-one-size-fits-all approach to digital innovation. Just look at what the Baobab Health Trust is doing in Malawi, with its smartly-designed systems to improve primary care treatment for HIV/AIDS. The touchscreen interfaces are intuitive and simple, allowing them to be easily navigated by users with limited technology experience. In addition, their devices are low-cost but robust: Africa can be a harsh environment at the best of times.

Secondly, and similarly, it is important to search for the positives in what may at first appear to be a sea of negatives. The outside world often talks of Africa in tones of pity, when in fact what once made the region seem backwards could in fact help it fly forwards. Yes, we lack in existing infrastructure. But while the Western world currently deals with the fallout from the fight between old and new media, in Africa there is no such struggle. New and nimble businesses need not worry about broadband monopolies or restrictive red tape. In the United States, the fact that patients don't own their medical records remains an ongoing debacle. In Africa? They are yours as much as anyone else's. Which means there is nothing to stop savvy tech innovators creating apps that help you access, store and update them from the palm of your hand.

In conclusion, the African region has a society rich in natural resources, but strikingly lacking in an infrastructure to harness them. I am not alone in believing that digital technology can help Africa to overcome some of the hurdles it currently faces concerning health. But to do this will require the total engagement and cooperation of both industry and governments alike. As healthcare communication experts, it is our responsibility to facilitate these connections, adding value along the journey in order to achieve better health outcomes for all. 

Article by
Gillian Bridger

managing director, Ogilvy Healthworld, South Africa

18th February 2016

Article by
Gillian Bridger

managing director, Ogilvy Healthworld, South Africa

18th February 2016

From: Healthcare



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