Technology boom: transforming healthcare services
Dr Hend El-Sherbini discusses the impact of Africa's technology boom for the healthcare industry.
Africa’s renaissance will be digitally driven, as it transforms its technological landscape and becomes a beacon of innovation and ingenuity.
Everything you think you know about Africa is out of date. Africa is no longer analogue. The influence of digital technology means the continent is transforming at a rate unimaginable only a few years ago. Indeed, Africa has the opportunity to become a world leader in digital infrastructure and use technology to solve problems that once seemed perennial.
Here, in Africa, we are determined not to let this opportunity pass us by. Our economies will be transformed as Africa becomes the destination for technological investment, and historically neglected areas such as healthcare will become advanced, effective and democratised.
The statistical evidence of this transformation is impressive: those with a smartphone connection in 2016 numbered around 226 million, but that is expected to rise to 720 million by 2020; Sub-Saharan Africa had only 30 FinTechs in 2007, and now boasts 262; and investment into financial technology grew by 400% in 2018. Global tech giants such as Google and Microsoft are also targeting investment in Africa – 2019 saw Google open an AI Lab in Ghana, and Microsoft establish an Africa Development Centre with branches in Nairobi and Lagos.
Africa’s historic lack of infrastructure and under-development makes the transformative capabilities of technology (the ‘fourth industrial revolution’) all the more powerful – as innovators and visionaries can afford to be braver and more imaginative as they are free from the constraints of inefficiencies and stale conventions which may impede progress in more developed economies.
In healthcare, the stakes could not be higher. Africa’s economic woes have long been defined by health disasters. Few other countries have paid such a heavy price in lives and potential as Egypt has over the past 40 years. And there are no easy solutions to resolve this legacy. Though Africa produces thousands of doctors and health professionals each year, it loses most of them to the developed world, and the continent that needs them most can only claim 2% of the world’s doctors.
The sparsity of health services and doctors in many parts of Africa makes the life changing efficiencies technology can provide all the more crucial. Where systems of healthcare have been chaotic and ad hoc, artificial intelligence and data analytics can organise, and most importantly, target and prioritise, those patients in most need. Moreover, in a region that still suffers from widespread poverty, and accesses only 1% of global funds for healthcare, the cost-savings from technology and digitisation are vital.
There is also a strong commercial imperative for those willing to invest in technology in Africa - the region is poised for an exponential growth in its middle-class consumer demographic. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, household spending is due to surpass $2.5 trillion by 2025, and growth in GDP has, for some years now, grown faster than the global average.
Healthcare is one of the things people prioritise when they have money to spare, and catering to this new demographic will reward those whose offerings align with the technological sophistication and high digital expectations of Africa’s burgeoning middle-class.
My own company, Integrated Diagnostics Holdings, is working to contribute to a digitisation of consumer healthcare in Egypt and Nigeria. In partnership with technology entrepreneur Dr Khaled Ismail, a former managing director of Intel Mobile Communications and senior advisor to the Egyptian Minister of Communications, we have developed a data mining and AI platform, which will capitalise on our existing patient database to provide services individually tailored to a patient’s profile. The new platform will make healthcare more convenient, and more importantly, will raise awareness of risks facing particular demographic profiles. For example, men in their 50s, who are at most risk of bowel cancer, will be sent an alert and made aware of their statistical profile and encouraged to undertake screening. In a healthcare context like Egypt’s where rates of Hepatitis C are the highest in the world, education and awareness are crucial to enable those at risk to protect themselves and slow the proliferation of the disease.
Africans are entitled to the same standards of healthcare provision as that enjoyed by those in Europe and the US, and we are right to expect the highest levels of convenience, personalisation and professionalism in the delivery of crucial services.
Technology is a key tool in achieving this across the continent and not just for transforming healthcare but also in areas such as personal banking, education and encouraging entrepreneurship.
My knowledge of this region and experience running a healthcare diagnostics business here, tells me that the new generation of technology and digitisation can help free the vast untapped potential of Africa to the benefit of its people and the wider world.
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