Harnessing power of technology to solve medical challenges

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BY ROBERT NGERU

Between 2008 and 2009 the Kenya Medical Research Institute and Harvard School of Public Health used mobile phones to carry out a study on how human travel affected the spread of malaria in Kenya. Using mobile phone data collected from nearly 15 million people the study was able to track the spread of the disease from western Kenya to Nairobi, becoming the largest ever attempted use of cell phones as an epidemiological tool in this country. The study also revealed a new angle on how to use cell phones to improve public health in Kenya.

Fast forward to 2015 and advancements in mobile phone technology for health are allowing companies to explore the possibility of easing access to healthcare in underprivileged areas by incorporating data collected using smartphones to diagnose and treat patients.

For example, through a yet-to-be launched initiative dubbed “Digital Villages,” Samsung will present a solution that can work to ease the country’s healthcare burden by providing accessible primary healthcare to a portion of the millions of Kenyans who lack access to quality, affordable medical services.

Running on solar power, the Digital Village will comprise of a health centre, tele-medical centre, an Internet school and a generator, allowing communities to benefit not only from easy access to basic medical services, but from community development facilities such as the school and lighting for businesses. Harnessing the power of solar energy to create integrated healthcare solutions, we aim to utilize innovations in technology to – for example – provide access to medical services such as blood analysis and screening, dental care and ophthalmology examinations.

Using smartphone-based technology, the solar-powered health centres will help eliminate economic and geographic barriers and allow medical personnel to provide diagnosis and treatment in remote rural areas, lowering mortality rates and at the same time providing a platform for communities to be educated about health issues.

With technology now allowing doctors from different parts of the world to communicate in real time, a doctor in say, Lokichoggio, can communicate with one in Nairobi or even Cape Town using a tele-medical application installed on a Samsung Galaxy Tab. In instances where no doctor is available, a nurse can manage the application and use the tele-conferencing facilities for remote patient-doctor consultations, thereby reducing waiting times and optimizing use of doctors whether they are in or out of the country.

Bearing in mind that Kenyans living in rural areas often have to travel long distances to access the nearest medical facility, be it a referral hospital or a clinic, partnership between the private and public sectors could be the solution to bringing about affordable, sustainable medical services.

At the inaugural Amref Health Africa International Conference held in Nairobi in November last year, healthcare professionals from all over the world converged in Nairobi to discuss home-grown, sustainable solutions of improving Africa’s healthcare standards.

What became clear from the various issues tackled was that the participation of the private sector is key to solving our country’s – and indeed the continent’s – healthcare challenges. And this participation doesn’t have to be in the form of ground-breaking innovations from technology companies; a simple donation of entry-level smartphones to medical personnel in rural or hard to access areas could make a significant difference, as seen in West Africa when mobile phone manufacturers donated mobile phones to enable data collection and sharing to fight the Ebola epidemic.

Granted, the Government has in the recent past committed to doing more to eliminate barriers to affordable healthcare, top among these measures being providing subsidized healthcare for the rural and urban underprivileged, increasing healthcare facility footprints and equipping medical facilities to handle more patients.

But we as private sector cannot sit back and let the Government shoulder this burden, because we too have an interest in the wellbeing of a country’s population; the healthier it is the more economically prosperous it can become.

We have the technology, what we need to see is the will and the foresight to realize that partnership now means shared prosperity for all later.

(The writer is the Vice President and Chief Operations Officer for Samsung Electronics East Africa)

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