This session aimed to share experiences in launching mobile health (m-health) solutions in rural Africa. The session was moderated by Mr Paul Cunningham, director of the IST-Africa and coordinator of the mHealth4Afrika initiative, who started by introducing the work of IST-Africa. The initiative works with African ministries for information and communications technology (ICT) to strengthen capacity, monitor research and innovation, and promote the participation of African scientists in internationally funded research. By encouraging research funding for African institutions, Masters and PhD programmes can be developed so that talented students do not have to leave their countries to pursue their studies, and are able to conduct locally and nationally relevant research. The organisation furthermore showcases African research and innovation, and supports cross-border and cross-silo co-operation, particularly between Europe and Asia.
Ms Mariam Cunningham, head of research at IST-Africa and coordinator of the mHealth4Afrika initiative, introduced the mHealth4Afrika initiative. mHealth4Afrika contributes to strengthening primary healthcare delivery, which is part of the sustainable development agenda. The initiative aims to improve the quality and impact of care, the frequency of contact with patients, the accuracy and quality of programme indicators, and access to educational material for clinic staff. She explained that rather than solely relying on mobile solutions, which are not always reliable in rural areas, the initiative adopts a broad interpretation of m-health that also includes the use of tablets and laptops.
Created through a co-design approach – ensuring ownership of the project among the local communities and adapted to local contexts – the project:
integrates electronic health records
introduces medical sensors to capture health indicators
uses analytical and visualisation tools to facilitate the interpretation and monitoring of patients
automatically generates monthly programme indicators
Paul Cunningham further elaborated on the assessment that was conducted to better understand the rural African context in which the m-health solutions have been developed. This context is characterised by unstable access to electricity, understaffed clinics, an absence of sophisticated medical equipment, low bandwidth, and a general lack of computer literacy. While the introduction of technology can facilitate access to medical information, training materials, and electronic patient records, these interventions can only be effective they coincide with change management, staff training, and the provision of digital devices and solar systems. He further added that the devices that are used need to be as intuitive and easy as possible. Mariam Cunningham then presented the appearance and functionality of the interface used by mHealth4Afrika.
The discussion that followed touched on the necessity to comply with international standards and the importance for such initiatives to be sustainable. Paul Cunningham closed the session by emphasising the need to professionalise rural clinics to address the challenge of the high level of staff turnover, as medical professionals quickly leave rural areas when opportunities in urban environments become available, usually with more attractive career paths.
By Barbara Rosen Jacobson