Sent remotely, the tips fit well in a new wave of arms-length healthcare that became standard practice during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Be it video chat or short texts linking patients to doctors, telemedicine surged during Covid-19 with everyone confined to home.
However, innovations in telemedicine were growing before the pandemic for their potential to offer affordable care to far-flung communities short of local services or know-how.
In SA, the department of health’s MomConnect platform has reached more than two million women, with more than 500,000 messages since 2014, providing essential information to expectant mothers through a digital helpdesk.
SASAdoctor in Kenya, operating since 2019, is a 24-hour medical app and in-person service that has 127,000 registered patients, according to company director Francis Osiemo.
With HIV so widespread in SA, social enterprise BroadReach Healthcare uses artificial intelligence (AI) to assess the nation’s clinics and suggest ways they can speed up the rollout of life-saving anti-retroviral drugs.
In KwaZulu-Natal, the number of virally suppressed people rose from 42% to 92% thanks to the insights AI delivered in more than 18 months, BroadReach said.
Innovators have also used tech to cut costs for patients.
Founded in Ghana in 2014, mPharma negotiates bulk prices and redistributes medicines to pharmacies and patients.
It has expanded to Nigeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya, and also offers micro-payment options for some high-end drugs.
“These innovations can make healthcare proactive instead of reactive,” said Bruno Ssekiwere, founder of Deep Learning IndabaX Uganda, an AI non-profit.
Just as the Malawi drones struggle to fly in heavy wind, rain or heat, researchers said tech is not a silver bullet for a continent struggling to keep pace with a heavy health burden.
“Data is a major issue. It is a bedrock of AI,” said Daramola, explaining how health records in Africa are rarely digitised or easily accessible.
Other challenges include poor access to electricity and the internet, said Ssekiwere, while legal and ethical frameworks to guide the use of new tech is also nascent.
“Who takes the credit or the blame for healthtech decisions? The doctor 0r the system?” asked Daramola.
“The answers are not yet clear,” he said.
Many tech innovators also grapple with these questions and use online community Sisonke Biotik to thrash out hot topics.
The group of around 180 global members is co-authoring a research report on machine learning and healthcare in Africa.
“Talent is uniformly distributed across the planet, but opportunity isn’t,” said Chris Fourie, one of Sisonke Biotik’s founders.
Sisonke Biotik said its value stems from the site being community-led and African-centric with a focus on collaboration and data sovereignty.
Laws governing data sovereignty — the regulation of data by the country in which the data originates — are non-existent or precarious in many African countries, according to a Deloitte report, leaving people open to data theft or tracking.
“The healthcare space is a lot more protective over their research compared to the computer science space so we are going to try our best to bring (collaboration) into the healthcare space wherever we can,” said Fourie.
Thomson Reuters Foundation