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mHealth to Transform Healthcare in Africa

mHealth involves the use of mobile phones to inform people about their health. It can include anything from providing information about health in general, to connecting patients with qualified doctors, to reminding them to take their medication. It can advise them where the closest clinic is and can also provide counselling. All of this using a mobile phone.

Situation at the Moment

According to medAfrica.org, Kenya has a population of 40 million but there are only 7,000 doctors. Also, there are only 3,000 medical facilities. In South Africa, "16% of people have a private medical insurance, and those people have access to good quality healthcare. The other 84% of the population have to go to the public healthcare system." says Peter Benjamin the CEO of Cell Life, a South African mHealth provider. The public healthcare, "is somewhere between bad and dysfunctional." Most of the people in the country "do not access the healthcare system, if they can help it," which shows that there is something badly wrong with the public medical care. This causes many diseases to remain undiagnosed and untreated.

"In South Africa there are 11 official languages. In 3 of those languages the health clinic is called `the place you go to get ill`, and the hospital is called `the place you go to die`". According to Benjamin, a person (in South Africa) who is sick, has three options. First of all, they can do nothing, "which is what most people do, they just hope they get better." Second of all, they can go to a clinic, which is not a popular option. Benjamin says that, "The clinics are the point of failure. Clinics are where the healthcare system falls apart, because there is just not enough resources or nurses." The third option that people have, is to go to a traditional healer, called a Sangoma. There are actually three times more traditional healers than there are medical professionals in South Africa, according to Benjamin.

28 million mobile phone users in Kenya
When realizing that Africa lacks a good healthcare infrastructure, it is a surprising contrast to see the vast amount of people who own mobile phones. According to medAfrica.org, Kenya has 28 million mobile phone users. "In a country like South Africa, about 92% of all youth and adults have got a cellphone. Which is extraordinary," says Benjamin. So it seems a logical consequence to reach people through their mobile phones. In more developed countries, cellphones are advanced, popular and stylish, but they are also only an addition to other technologies.

Benjamin says, "In Europe or North America the mobile phone is nice, but it is, if you like, a substitution technology. It substitutes the telephone that you probably have at home or work," and it at times also substitutes people`s laptops or desktop computers. In Africa it is a different situation. Mobile phones are more than just another technology, they are the main technology of the country. "It`s not the substitute for anything; it is the only way that normal people have access to telephony or to the internet. It is a different role in people`s lives." So even though it seems contradictory that most people in less-advantaged, African countries have cellphones, the importance of this technology for the continent should be remembered.

Improvements mHealth can Provide
While in Europe and North America the centre of research is things like nano sensors and body area networks, Benjamin believes that the biggest potential impact on Africa lies somewhere else, namely in mobile healthcare services. "In one sentence, what I think mHealth can do is: lower the barriers to accessing healthcare to the majority of people in the country." It uses cellphones to inform people about their health and strives to provide good quality medical care for all. "mHealth could provide better levels of healthcare to people while keeping them out of clinics."

"Somewhere between 30-40% of people at the clinic don`t need to be there," according to a survey done by Cell Life. "Those sorts of people can be dealt with through the mobile phone. They do not need to go to the clinic. Which hopefully will reduce the waiting time, and ideally increase the quality of healthcare." So, even though the clinics lack the capacity for their patients, this could be changed quite easily by simply informing people more effectively.

"You can access professional healthcare through your mobile phone," making it more convenient and hopefully more widely used. "It`s not `what can we do with the really beautiful iPhones and BlackBerrys and Androids`, what the real question is, `can we turn the millions of basic cellphones in the country into a way to access healthcare?`"

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