Despite recent progress, Africa carries a disproportionate share of the global burden of disease, with rising rates of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) threatening its fragile healthcare systems.
Fortunately, new digital technology provides tools to more effectively address the growing dual burden of disease. Properly leveraged, data science technologies can provide digital solutions and applications to transform Africa’s health systems from reactive to proactive and even preventive, helping people stay healthy.
With artificial intelligence (AI), health systems can be made more predictive by detecting risk factors and helping health professionals respond faster to prevent disease.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, global health system leaders leveraged data and analytics tools to understand the spread of COVID-19 in their communities, manage capacity, and allocate resources appropriately.
New ways of collecting, sharing, and evaluating data will continue to expand even after COVID-19, leading to new technological advancements that could transform patient care and help prepare for any future emergencies.
Africa, therefore, needs to enhance efforts to embrace data and analytics with AI and ML within its health systems to develop solutions to the continent’s most pressing public health problems
With the upsurge in the use of machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI), the digital revolution is disrupting every field and transforming entire systems of production and communication, and the healthcare sector is not left out.
In the next decade, rapid advances in data science are expected to transform biomedical and behavioural research and lead to improved health for individuals and populations.
Africa, therefore, needs to enhance efforts to embrace data and analytics with AI and ML within its health systems to develop solutions to the continent’s most pressing public health problems and find opportunities for better health outcomes.
Adoption of data in Africa’s healthcare system: Current state and challenges
Although data science applications are largely undeveloped in Africa, several enabling factors for a catalytic impact already exist.
Extensive mobile phone coverage in Africa has led to major innovations that could bring the clinic to the patient through data science technologies, with applications to rural and underserved populations.
The falling price of connectivity and the 5G networks rollout also promise to accelerate the use of digital technology.
In recent years, there has been some significant advancement in Africa’s health tech, with a rise in the number of innovative medical and healthcare start-ups in Africa.
These firms cover a range of healthcare areas such as drug procurement, health literacy, genetic sequencing, etc. Examples include, DrugStoc, 54gene, Reliance HMO, Vezeeta, Babymigo, among several others.
However, despite these achievements, African countries face challenges in implementing digital health solutions.
Common challenges include a lack of coordination leading to fragmented digital health solutions, inadequate policies and gaps in policy effectiveness, lack of systems and workforce capacity to manage data and digital technology, inadequate financing to support digital health, and poor community and user integration with the technology.
Strategies to leverage data for healthcare innovation in Africa
To address the above challenges, Africa needs a robust ecosystem for building digital health systems. African policymakers, in collaboration with stakeholders from the academic, private, and non-profit sectors, need to take action to create favourable environments for advancing sustainable, digital health solutions.
In view of this, Bloom Public Health, an indigenous public health think-tank in Africa, proposes the following strategies to effectively leverage data for healthcare innovation in Africa:
1. Formulation and execution of national digital health strategies: African governments need to lay out compelling national digital health strategies that provide clear direction to all stakeholders in the health system.
A national strategy should provide a supportive, predictable operating environment for solution providers. In line with this, there is also the need to institute regulatory and policy frameworks to enable digital health solutions, while protecting patients and driving innovation.
2. Establishment and maintenance of effective partnerships that leverage the expertise of diverse players in the health space to maximise the impact of health tech. An outstanding model of such partnerships is the recent partnership between Bloom Public Health and Africa Quantitative Sciences (AQS).
Bloom Public Health and AQS will leverage the power of data and artificial intelligence (AI) to provide customized solutions to pressing public health challenges in Africa, particularly in the areas of pharmaceutical quality systems, policy for public health, pharmacovigilance, and drug surveillance.
Bloom Public Health is also partnering with other health tech firms to deliver innovative supply chain management solutions to strengthen the healthcare system of some states in Nigeria.
3. Sustainable adequate financing: Significant financial investments are crucial to sustainably integrate digital health solutions into Africa’s health systems. Establishment of robust financial structures is key to provide funding for health-tech start-ups and ensuring access to digital health solutions, while protecting patients and users from financial hardship. This can be through donor grants, public and private insurance, and subsidised out-of-pocket payments
4. Training and capacity building for healthcare professionals to develop the required expertise needed to replicate global innovations in health-tech in Africa.
Data science technologies present significant opportunities to accelerate progress towards achieving universal health coverage in Africa. With growing opportunities to apply AI, healthcare systems can better predict highest-risk patients, help health professionals respond faster to prevent disease, and support policy makers to allocate resources for the greatest impact, thereby reducing the burden on Africa’s healthcare system.