The last few days have been quite saddening for a number of reasons. First, is the continued inaction of the Government at all levels in the face of the alarming rise in insecurity across the country as bandits, kidnappers and criminals are literally calling the shots. The second, more personal, reason is the loss of two great activists and nation builders a few days ago – Innocent Chukwuma and Yinka Odumakin who both died from health issues. Both men were consistent in their fight for democracy, social justice and equity and worked in different capacities over decades, often shoulder to shoulder, fighting for a better future for Nigeria.
I was closer to Innocent who also had a deep passion for innovation which he saw as a low hanging route to leapfrog Nigerian, as well as African development. Along with several others, I supported him and his charismatic wife on the strategy team ahead of the launch of his Oluaka Institute located in Owerri, Imo State which he envisioned would be critical in driving the adoption of tech and innovation skills in the South East and the rest of Nigeria. Our long conversations on the opportunities that abound in the Nigerian innovation ecosystem led to his support in the creation of Innovation Support Network (ISN) Hubs, a network of over 100 innovation and technology hubs across the country.
There are not enough words or accolades for Innocent Chukwuma – he was just a really amazing guy – to know Innocent was to be inspired to do much more than you had thought possible. He died at the relatively young age of 55 – we agree that it is God who gives and takes, yet I wonder if our healthcare sector should not take responsibility for some of the many deaths we have seen in the past year. Yes, the world is going through a pandemic and people die everyday but would they both still be alive if they were being treated abroad? For one, Innocent was an extremely health conscious person who made the rest of us look bad. He could also afford the very best healthcare in Nigeria, and still we lost him. So what does this say about healthcare in Nigeria, and indeed, in Africa?
As I write, resident doctors are on strike in Nigeria while our President is in the United Kingdom for his medical check-up. So, not only would those in critical conditions risk death from lack of care at the hospitals with protesting doctors, the country is also not taking short or long term steps towards addressing the myriad of challenges in the system. Demotivated and poorly-paid doctors are still expected to provide qualitative healthcare service despite poor working conditions and being owed wages, while the political elite can travel to the best of hospitals across the world for medical treatment.
There are too many challenges piling up for the attention of a tone-deaf government and solutions will continue to come from the private sector. The most affordable intervention in this, and many other African, issue(s) would be incorporating technology across the healthcare value chain and this is why I am focusing on health-tech today.
Investors are currently keen on healthtech and innovations that border around advanced biotech, symptoms and disaster tracking, faster diagnosis and remote treatment, apparatus that can repel viruses and so forth. Since the pandemic, we have seen a spike in investments and technological advancements around health, and Africa has not been left out, as we have seen some startups addressing the pandemic as well as other challenges, albeit slowly with comparatively less policy and financial support. But these developments are relatively too few and far between for Africa with the relatively low life expectancy, high infant and maternal mortality rates, poor hygiene and tropical diseases as well as collapsing infrastructure.
Even the deployment and growth of digital health in Africa is facing several challenges ranging from poor coordination of health projects, lack of awareness and knowledge about digital health, poor infrastructure including power supply, internet connectivity, lack of coordination in operations of the numerous digital health systems and weak health systems, and an incredible migrant flow of medical personnel out of the Continent in search of more qualitative work and remunerative environments.
Irrespective of the challenges, access to technology is enabling the growth of health access in Africa with the evolution of AI and quantum computing ensuring that big data can be effectively harnessed for more accurate information about patient history, which will lead to more effective diagnosis and treatment. It is only a matter of time, before these technologies will assist in achieving breakthroughs in the cure for many diseases including HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer, Diabetes, High Blood Pressure and of course, Cancer.
Over the past few years, and accelerated by COVID, we have witnessed global advances in medical processes including electronic health records, mHealth, Telemedicine/telehealth, Portal technology, Self-service kiosks, Remote monitoring tools, Sensors and wearable technology, Wireless communication, Real-time locating services and Pharmacogenomics/genome sequencing. Health startups such as Zipline, Mdaas, MPharma, Helium health, Doctoora, Lifebank, Wellahealth and Gene54 are already breaking boundaries in the provision of innovative health care , so we have made some wins but holistically, where does Nigeria’s healthcare sector rank in all of this?
Even our best health care facilities are not good enough for our President, so we need to upgrade them all and the government needs to support the private sector in this herculean task while also adopting enabling policies for digital healthcare to grow. Our medical practitioners need to be properly incentivized and trust that the system would adequately reward them during and after their labour, so that they do not change nationality. Healthcare adoption of new technology must not be an elective or something sought out by proactive doctors, it needs to be a curricular requirement. Medical students need to be taught the use of Virtual and Augmented reality, as these will present a somewhat real medical situation that will accelerate their learning process. Customer experience and other sustainable models that foster better communication between medical professionals and patients must also be adopted.
When we convincingly create and execute national policies and strategies for an enhanced healthcare sector accessible to all Nigerians, and our President is confident enough to have his checkups here, then maybe we would be less conflicted when we hear of deaths from ailments, knowing that our hospitals and medical staff had all that was needed to care for our friends and loved ones.
I join thousands, and possibly millions, across the World, to mourn these gentlemen who recently passed on due to health-related issues and hopefully, the good lives they led will spark something more positive for our country which includes the wide adoption of healthtech as well as a Government that treat healthcare professionals with the requisite respect and remuneration.
ICT Clinic by CFA is published weekly in the Sunday Punch