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Time to bolster Kenya’s telemedicine efforts

FAUSTINE NGILABy FAUSTINE NGILA
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For a decade now, Kenya has been the undisputed king of technological transformation in sub-Saharan Africa.

But the healthcare sector has been slow to adopt emerging technologies towards achieving universal healthcare.

A government telemedicine initiative launched with much pomp in 2015 has nothing to show for itself five years later, more so now when it would have been particularly useful to patients in rural Kenya during this Covid-19 period.

It is appalling to find that the programme that was to link Kenyatta National Hospital doctors to patients in Machakos Level Five Hospital and other health facilities around the country never kicked off, despite a colourful speech by the Health minister at the time, James Macharia, which emphasised that the government “recognises the value of ICTs in enhancing efficiency in the delivery of quality healthcare services”.

However, the unexpected collapse of a promising project became an inspiration for private players to kick-start what professionals in the medical field term the future of medicine.

In the same period, which saw the birth of valuable apps, such as MyDawa, M-Tiba, Dawa Swift, Daktari Africa and Sasa Doctor, the private industry has been placing more value in the telehealth landscape, and this has been a major boost towards providing timely, affordable and quality healthcare for patients.

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FOSTER INNOVATION

I spent the past two weeks talking to patients in rural Kenya and doctors in urban areas about how the e-Health ecosystem is working.

As the coronavirus spreads, more patients are finding solace online, where they consult doctors and clinicians via videoconferencing and the medicine they purchase online gets delivered to their houses.

A virtual session can cost as low as Sh500 compared to Sh5,000 in hospitals, and services include diagnosis, prescription, surgery pre-assessments, ultrasound, crowd funding, pharmaceutical e-commerce, health insurance, doctor-to-doctor consultation and medicine e-learning.

I found out that telemedicine is enabling a focus on maintaining healthy conditions, avoiding the development of non-communicable disease, preventing the progression of chronic disease while reducing the sick time that keeps children away from school and adults from employment.

Even with snags such as uneven 4G internet distribution in rural areas, Kenya’s 41 registered telemedicine apps have been key in improving the health and well-being of citizens in rural villages.

However, more still needs to be done to achieve inclusivity. For, instance, the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF), which insures more than seven million Kenyans, needs to embrace innovators’ drive and allow payments for patients treated through online medicine.

PROVIDE RESOURCES

I established that some doctors are hesitant to register on e-Health platforms because they own physical clinics that provide the same services, and are also reluctant to learn the dynamics of the new disruption.

Such doctors, who prefer traditional methods of treatment because of the money and expensive convenience, must change their mindsets because the Fourth Industrial Revolution is cutting across all sectors.

It’s time for a public-private partnership to build telemedicine centres in rural Kenya and provide uninterruptible power supply and stable internet to those zones.