East Africa sees telehealth boom amid Covid-19 pandemic

AFRICA – The pandemic has accelerated the pace of technological advances in health care, from video consultations to artificial intelligence-powered triage, and medically underserved East Africa is catching on fast.

With some of the worst doctor-patient ratios in the world, Africa is proving fertile ground for telehealth providers. Babyl, the Rwandan arm of UK-based Babylon Healthcare Services, said daily consultations went from about 3,000 in March 2020 to more than 5,000 now.

Rocket Health, a Ugandan provider, saw a 500 per cent increase in phone and video consultations in the year to December 2020, and a quadrupling so far this year.

While the demand has been driven by Covid-19, with testing needs and reduced access to health professionals, the companies expect the growth to continue even when the virus has been tamed.

Many African countries can’t train enough medical personnel and have to grapple with a persistent brain drain to richer nations. More than a third of UK physicians were trained abroad, including in Africa.

Much of the growth will be fueled by rising smartphone penetration. Only about a quarter of Sub-Saharan Africans had access to smartphones before the pandemic, according to the GSM Association, which represents mobile providers.

Babyl, an adaptation of the Babylon name because of its negative biblical connotations locally, has been in Rwanda since 2015 and says about 20 per cent of the population is registered to use its service.

Smartphone penetration was around 10 per cent when Babylon first entered the country, so its service was adapted to make it available to anyone with a basic handset – about 80 per cent of Rwandans – using the same technology that powers mobile money platforms in many developing countries, according to local managing director Shivon Byamukama.

Not all African countries have such coverage though. Non-governmental organization PharmAccess helped create a digital wallet system that allows low-income Kenyans to save up for medical expenses, including contributions from other parties, such as relatives, NGOs, or the government.

Babyl signed a 10-year contract with Rwanda in 2020 and plans to launch a health center-based tool powered by artificial intelligence in the coming months that will funnel patients to an in-person consultation or its own digital and phone service. The aim is to relieve some of the in-person burden and speed up processes like validating insurance.

Germany-based Ada Health has been working in Tanzania since 2017, partnering with Swiss philanthropic organization Fondation Botnar.

The company launched a localized version of its app in Swahili in 2019 in a bid to respond more directly to the region’s needs.

Currently there’s four billion people that lack even access to basic primary health-care services,” Ada’s Ms Azadzoy said. “We cannot fill that gap without technology.”

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