Our General Manager for the Middle East and Africa, Sonja de Pattenden, shares her views on how technology is transforming the delivery of healthcare in Africa.
Global healthcare spending is expected to increase to USD 18 trillion by 2040. The World Bank Group expects the gap in public health expenditure globally to continue to widen, meaning people in low income regions such as sub-Saharan Africa will be expected to pay more for their health costs out of their own pocket – 31% in comparison to only 11% in Western Europe.
The rising cost of healthcare is a particularly important issue for insurers, with increasing pressures to keep premiums affordable while ensuring customers get access to the best quality medical care. Technology offers a significant opportunity to tackle the rising cost of healthcare while also improving health outcomes, particularly in Africa. From telemedicine services that increase access to those living in remote areas, to apps that promote preventative care, there are many ways digital innovation could disrupt the entire healthcare value chain.
Telemedicine for remote healthcare access
The rise of the smartphone continues to be game-changing for Africa, particularly when it comes to healthcare. The penetration of mobile networks in many low- and middle- income countries surpasses that of other infrastructure, with mobile penetration across Africa now at 81% of the population. As a result, the mobile phone offers a gateway to telemedicine and virtual care services which are helping to control healthcare expenditure and improve access.
Telemedicine services can deliver healthcare advice directly through a phone or mobile device, facilitating remote medical consultation and treatment for those living in rural areas. It can also provide a form of triage to prevent unnecessary doctor visits and limit the need for acute (and costly) interventions. In 2015, Kenya launched a national telemedicine initiative – enabling patients in rural areas to interact with health experts at Kenya’s main referral hospital, Kenyatta National Hospital, using video conferencing.
At Now Health International we are seeing more expatriates being sent on overseas assignments in the wider Africa region, many of whom may spend time in remote areas. Telemedicine services offer opportunities for us to provide them with access to medical advice from quality healthcare providers, without the need to travel.
Digital solutions for preventative care
Technology offers many opportunities to help reduce healthcare costs via preventative care. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are the greatest cost burden on the global healthcare system and, over the next decade, deaths from NCDs are projected to increase the greatest in Africa (by 27%). As NCDs are often linked to lifestyle factors, digital solutions that encourage healthy behaviours could play a significant role in reducing healthcare costs in the region.
There are numerous apps and wearable devices available to support people to quit smoking, manage their diet or stay active. While such devices are still in the early stages of adoption in Africa, data shows that the continent’s wearables market is growing rapidly, experiencing 89.9% growth in the first quarter of 2016. For those without access to such devices, simple text messaging alerts are already supporting preventative care, such as the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA) which provides free prenatal health advice by text to women in Africa.
Insurers have a role to play in promoting such technologies, as healthier customers mean reduced medical claims costs for us. For example, some health insurance plans in South Africa are now linked to fitness trackers, with premium discounts and rewards offered to customers that adopt healthy lifestyle habits.
Big data is king
There are an increasing number of interconnected devices (ie, IoT) worldwide, and South Africa alone is expected to have 35 million of these by 2020. These devices provide us with access to big data on a scale that was previously unimaginable. This includes vast amounts of data on people’s health conditions across different ages, genders and geographies.
During the Ebola crisis in Africa in 2014, public health bodies used Magpi, a data collection solution, which enabled the effective monitoring and recording of people infected with the virus to ensure more targeted and cost effective deployment of resources. The Magpi tool also helped save costs, as the process of gathering data via their text message solution was much cheaper than the traditional form of paper-based disease surveillance.
For health insurers, this increase in available data about existing and potential customers will enable us to improve our risk modelling and underwriting.
Technology is fundamentally changing the way healthcare is delivered in the 21st century, presenting significant potential for cost savings. While it may take many decades for such technologies to become fully integrated into the healthcare system across Africa, progress is well underway – and early adopters will reap rewards in the long term.