Use of Technology Can Improve the Prognosis for Health Care in Africa
When it comes to the influence of technology in health care on the African continent, seemingly small victories can lead to vast improvements.The problem, said participants on a panel entitled “Can Technology Enable Health Care for All?”at the recent Wharton Africa Business Forum, is that African nations often lack the ability, or home-grown advocates with both passion and resources, to cash in on those advances.“What we need are more smart rich people who are passionate about health care in Africa,”said Dr. Felix Olale, CEO of Excelsior Ventures, which invests in the health sector in Africa, with headquarters in Nairobi and New York.“What Bill Clinton and Bill Gates have done, what USAID and George Bush’s programs did, what the U.K. government has contributed, those have had massive impact,”Olale noted. “But it comes down to smart people with a little bit of money and passion. We don’t have enough of those people —African people and those in government —among Africans themselves.”There have been some successes, mostly where government officials have made health care a priority. Ladi Awosika, CEO of Total Health Trust, based in Nigeria, said that in his home country, only five million of 170 million citizens have even a modicum of health care insurance. In nearby Ghana, however, 68% of residents have such coverage.“We have a lot of smart people hanging around there, but there is no passion,”said Awosika. “We’ve gone from two or three private jets to 200 private jets in a few years, but no passion for health care. If [well-off people] get sick, they fly off to Sweden, or wherever, to get their operation. But they don’t bring to Africa what it needs, which may not cost all that much.”Change will not come, Awosika added, “until the richest guy in Nigeria gets in a car crash and doesn’t get the attention he needs at the scene, like he would in America. Your six-hour flight to Sweden isn’t going to make any difference then, and maybe people will notice.”
Improving a Desperate Situation
Awosika noted that recent developments in technology could vastly improve what might seem like a desperate situation on the surface.Complications from maternity-related afflictions kill the equivalent of crashing three full 747 jets every day, he noted, adding that one state governor got the idea of giving expectant mothers cell phones so they could call experienced midwives and other health professionals when they had a health issue, and also receive calls to remind them to take their medicines or get their check-ups.In this case as in others, “you can see a simple technology innovation being applied to address a specific problem?Twitter ,”said Awosika. “Something so small can be so important.” Anna Thompson-Quaye, deputy director of innovative finance and private sector partnerships at the GAVI Alliance, which concentrates on vaccinations and related services, said similar small innovations in technology are aiding her African initiatives.“We often deal in individual vials and need to find storage for them, which creates incredible wastage,”noted Thompson-Quaye, adding that simple technology like a machine that can monitor the temperature of the vials or barcoding machines that track the transport and storage of the vaccines have significantly advanced GAVI’s programs.“We have experimented with vials that have their own syringe attached,”she said. “It is small technology, but that, for us, is exciting technology.”
The Impact of Ebola
Olale said that he saw a certain irony when he appeared on CNBC’s African channel and a headline came up reading, “Ebola Unlocks Investment Opportunities in Africa.”It has been true, at least in part, he said.“The panic is unwarranted, but Ebola is a big deal,”said Olale. Kenya Airways, which is headquartered in his home city of Nairobi, flies to more African destinations than any other airline. The carrier started using its technology to lay the groundwork for protocols to limit the spread of the disease and also for treatment. The health ministry got involved and provided clinics with the funds to buy the technology they needed. “So Ebola is actually more feared in New York than Nairobi.”Awosika said Nigeria was well-prepared for the outbreak, since urban clinics in Lagos and other major cities have long been prepared for infectious disease treatment.