The wealth of a nation is the health of its people. Therefore every effort must be made to ensure the highest level of well being especially where disease prevention and control are feasible. This is the case in developing countries especially in Africa.
Due to pressure in population and economic decline, the doctor to patient ratio in most African countries are continually getting smaller. This reduces the level or efficiency of healthcare in most countries. Though a comparatively new area with rapid growth in recent years, the potential of the application of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in healthcare appears to be recognised by most government and UN bodies such as United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), World Health Organisation (WHO), World Bank, etc.
Reduction in child mortality and improvement in maternal health are aspects of the Millennium Development Goals that are big burdens to most African countries. The challenge is for the governments to drastically reduce child mortality and greatly improve maternal health within the pressures of economic declines.
When the Secretary General of the UNECA addressed the Bamako 2000 conference of the African Information Society Initiative (AISI), he stated, “Africa is at an early stage of using ICT to improve the delivery of health care. Investment in ICT in the health sector could complement basic health services through the enhancement of administration, access to information and decision-support systems for curative and preventive health and the improved distribution of medical supplies”. The African Development Fund (ADF) examined a number of approaches to provide the infrastructure to connect the health community and provide acess to information relevant to the health needs of the region. Different ICT opportunities in the health sector were analysed and steps were identified to harness the various opportunities available, including reviewing how ICT could support information dissemination on key health threats such as tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS. ICT can facilitate access, dissemination, utilisation and exchange of information on combating these diseases.
The big question however is: has Africa made enough effort in examining ways and means of providing the infrastructure to connect the health community and providing access to information relevant to the health needs of the region.
The objective of this descriptive paper is to highlight the role and aspects of ICT that are vital for the successful improvement in healthcare delivery in Africa especially in the area of reducing child mortality and improvement of maternal health. Benefits and challenges in using ICT as an enabling tool in the health sector have been discussed.
Benefits of ICT in health sector
In very broad terms, ICT is defined as technologies that help the creation, transfer and exchange of information across geographical distances through the radio, Internet, web browsing, remote processing, etc. The various national health sectors have embraced ICT as a tool for enhancing health care services. One of the reforms undertaken by the Ministry of Health in recent years include the decentralisation of the district health facilities which gives autonomy to health centres on a district/sub-district level. Although programmes and good decision making and management help to provide immediate and local responses to health problems, there is still need to link work being done at the national level with activities at the district and sub-district level. Filling that gap calls for the effective utilisation and opportunities availed by ICT. This will result into provision of health information in a coordinated manner and help to fulfill the 'Health for All' vision of the National Health Policy.
At the level of referral hospitals/regional hospitals/district/sub-district/health centres and delivery units, ICT can enable: more effective planning, decision-making and monitoring, process and transaction efficiencies, improved back office/shared service operations, greater access to more reliable data and more effective resource management.
At the level of service providers, ICT can enable efficient movement of necessary data to clinicians through the integration of clinical information across the health system and consistent and shared views of patient data. It can also enable the matching of resources to activity levels through relevant up-to-date information and reliable and timely evidence-based decision-making and devolution of budgetary accountability to clinical managers.
Particular value for patients from improved information systems include: development and use of electronic patient records leading to the electronic shareable health record, clinical support systems, telemedicine/tele-health, multi-media decision support systems, remote monitoring and connections between hospitals using Local Area Network (LAN)/Wide Area Network (WAN).
ICT is an important element in the Ugandan President's strategy to modernise the country and improve access to health services for emergencies and access to health information. For example, the success in containing Ebola outbreak was associated with enhanced communication at different levels, so is the containment of HIV/AIDS epidemic as compared to Europe and other African countries.
Other benefits of ICT include:
- Efficient and effective sharing of health information and skills among health professionals;
- Easy dissemination for disease treatment and disease control;
- Reduced costs and inconvenience of patient transfers;
- Disease surveillance information and interventions accessible by all;
- Databases of health management information system (HMIS) for efficient planning and policy formulation.
Challenges of ICT in health
While there are numerous benefits of ICT, there are challenges as well. For the benefits to be realised, these challenges must be faced.
Despite the use of telemedicine by some African Ministries of Health there is an urgent need for the full adoption of ICT. Modes of data collection throughout most countries are not standardised and processes remain almost entirely manual