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Can Telemedicine Become the New Face of Healthcare in Africa?

Can Telemedicine Become the New Face of Healthcare in Africa?

Telemedicine as the new headway for healthcare in Africa - Afrocritik

Telemedicine basically exists so patients can gain better access to quality care without leaving their houses all the time.

By Michael Akuchie 

Picture this: you suddenly come down with an illness you strongly believe is malaria, but you are too weak to visit the hospital. Using your smartphone or tablet, you request to speak with a doctor online. You share details about your current physical state with the doctor, adding the symptoms to help with an accurate diagnosis. After the consultation, the doctor prescribes medication and you go pick it up from the nearby pharmacy. What you have just pictured is a concept known as telemedicine or telehealth. According to Mayo Clinic, it is “the use of digital information and communication technologies to access health care services remotely and manage your health care.” It is a system that has begun to be embraced in first-world countries like the United States of America and the United Kingdom. Hospitals, pressured by a seemingly endless volume of patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, started adopting remote care using technology. 

Considering the underlying problems of Africa’s public healthcare infrastructure, such as ill-equipped clinics, epileptic power supply, and long waiting lines, telemedicine can become a game changer in the sector. Instead of crowding the clinics and waiting for hours to see the doctor, patients with minor conditions can leverage one of the many telehealth platforms and request a session. This is highly convenient for those who live far from hospitals and may not want to spend a lot on transportation. 

In Nigeria, there are a growing number of telehealth platforms trying to extend care to many patients, amidst these challenges. Among them include Mobihealth International, Reliance HMO, and iWello. Aside from chatting with the doctor via text, patients can also participate in real-time video sessions. This makes for a more immersive experience for users. Telemedicine basically exists so patients can gain better access to quality care without leaving their houses all the time, especially those living in remote areas with terrible road networks who find it difficult to visit the hospital every time they have to. It is one of the many ways by which technology has transformed the world. 

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Sometime in September, I started feeling feverish and found it quite hard to perform my daily tasks. Where I worked at the time had an HMO plan so I  decided to speak with a doctor on the HMO’s virtual consultation platform. Upon sharing my symptoms and responding to an inquiry about any underlying disease, the doctor created a prescription and ended the session. Before closing the chat, he instructed me to keep an eye out for a push notification on my phone from the HMO which will notify me of when my medications were ready at the pharmacist I had selected for pick up. It took a couple of hours, but I eventually got a notification. 

I liked that I could speak with a doctor without having to go to the clinic. Although it took a longer wait period for my prescription to be ready. The session also felt like I was speaking with a customer care agent who wanted to get done with me as soon as possible, rather than with a doctor. This may likely have been due to the large volume of patients the doctor had to attend to. In this sense, it may seem no different from having a physical consultation, but the fact that I do not have to leave my house and cover transportation costs makes a huge impact. Also, if I had gone to the hospital, I would have had to take the prescription to either the dispensary or a nearby pharmacy to purchase the drugs. 

Telemedicine - Afrocritik
Credit: Ventures Africa

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I spoke with Dennis Da-ala Mirilla, an editor at Pulse, who had also previously used a telehealth platform. As he revealed, there was not much of a difference between telemedicine and the traditional patient care approaches. “I think there is nothing really different with what telehealth provides compared to being with a doctor physically. Unless the patient has a chronic disease, which demands frequent physical consultations,” he said. Da-ala Mirilla makes an accurate point that proponents of telehealth must acknowledge. Although telehealth greatly relieves the burden on the traditional healthcare system, it is not designed for those in critical conditions. For instance, a child who suffered two broken ribs from a school accident needs the attention of the Accident and Emergency ward, not a video chat with a doctor.  The same goes for a patient with kidney failure. Until it gets to their turn on the transplant waitlist, dialysis is the immediate action and that is not offered on any telehealth platform. A Harvard Health article supports this argument, adding that it is not possible to do every kind of checkup remotely.  “You still have to go into the office for things like imaging tests and blood work, as well as for diagnoses that require a more hands-on approach,” it further stated. 

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Telemedicine still has a major role to play in Nigeria and the rest of Africa, with increased convenience for patients and increased efficiency on the doctors’ part being among the top potential benefits. However, there are some roadblocks to telehealth service delivery in the region,which include infrastructural challenges like low smartphone penetration, unstable internet connectivity and substitution costs, little to no government support and a lack of government regulation, and most importantly, an unwillingness to by individuals to adopt the innovation. 

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A paper authored by Dolapo Babalola, Michael Anayo, and David Ayomide Itoya in AIMS Medical Science Journal, argues that many patients believe in being physically diagnosed as a catalyst for effective healthcare, a strong proponent in healthcare that is difficult to argue against. Many still carry the believe that effective patient care can only be achieved through physical consultations. Although the thought of speaking with a doctor remotely is innovative, there is still a great deal of indifference towards this approach. I, too, still have a personal bias for physical consultations despite the poor state of healthcare in Nigeria. Perhaps if the flaws I noticed during my virtual consultation are addressed and the challenges facing mass adoption get taken care of, I might reconsider my stance. 

Although it is still in the initial stage, telehealth has shown that it can play a significant role in extending healthcare services to people in underserved communities. Whether this will be achieved remains to be seen. Despite the imperfections, it is a fascinating invention that can transform healthcare for the better. Imagine a world where patients can converse with doctors over a video call and they still enjoy the same quality of care that can be obtained in the hospital. A healthcare revolution!

Michael Akuchie is a tech journalist with four years of experience covering cybersecurity, AI, automotive trends, and startups. He reads human-angle stories in his spare time. He’s on X (fka Twitter) as @Michael_Akuchie & michael_akuchie on Instagram.

Cover Photo: Fusion Informatics

 

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