May 2007

e-Health and its Challenges for the African Media

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The lack of transparency in the health sector always impedes the reportage on e-Health. In most of the cases, the health officials in Africa need to get clearance from their bosses before talking to journalists. Moreover, e-Health initiatives in Africa are mainly at the project level and ICT policies are still in draft form, which leaves very little room for the growth of newsworthy e-Health news. Furthermore, e-Health is a novel concept in Africa and the continent has only a handful of e-Health professionals, most of them being men.

It is true that e-Health is gaining currency in the developed countries of the west, but the awareness of its enormous potential seems to be very limited in Africa. Reporting on information and communication technologies (ICTs) is not on the agenda of many news rooms in Africa and thus e-Health stories are seldom reported in the mainstream media.

Moreover. journalists in Africa, by and large, are not in any way specialised in reporting on ICTs and therefore find e-Health stories to be difficult to follow and cover. Political stories still overtake ICT stories in the African media with alarming regularity. Besides, editors feel ICT stories do not make news. At the end of the day, both journalists and editors in Africa play proactive roles in not allowing e-Health stories getting their due coverage in the media.

The journalists in Africa need to get basic ICT training, and those with interest in ICT and health should specialize in the subject area of e-Health reporting. This will enable them to analyse ICT issues and share knowledge; thereby amplifying marginalized voices, organizing political action, empowering participation and sustainability, and celebrating cultural and intellectual diversity . Finally the lack of transparency in the health sector always impedes the reportage on e-Health. In most of the cases, the health officials in Africa need to get clearance from their bosses before talking to journalists. Moreover, e-Health initiatives in Africa are mainly at the project level and ICT policies are still in draft form, which leaves very little room for the growth of newsworthy e-Health news.

Furthermore, e-Health is a novel concept in Africa and the continent has only a handful of e-Health professionals, most of them being men. It is therefore still more difficult to have a woman's voice on e-Health related issues unless when e-Health applications directly and obviously benefits the women eg. in the area of reproductive health. Journalists reporting an e-Health story should include the voices of the consumers (women and men). Gender issues also need to be incorporated in the e-Health reporting of Africa.

Moreover, new e-Health technologies should not be imposed on a community because many times there is a social and cultural resistance towards change. For this we need to make the consumer aware of e-Health, which is a new concept in Africa, and in this regard media can play a very proactive role by sensitising the uninitiated to the benefits of new technology, through dissemination of factual information, coupled with forceful analysis. In Africa, the media at large also lacks active ICT media networks, specialised ICT publications, and there is little exposure to e-conferences. These are effective platforms where e-Health stories stand a chance of being reported in the media.

There is an urgent need to popularise this innovative initiative called e-Health in Africa, especially among journalists, and also demystify e-Health issues as it is the answer to making quality healthcare accessible to the teeming multitudes of Africa, which is still a predominantly rural continent; characterized by constraint in healthcare infrastructure. The fact that Africa has suffered brain drain in the field of health, should also get due coverage in the African media. In a nutshell, there is a need for a concerted media campaign on e-Health issues, which would include production of visual printed materials in comprehensible languages, that share information on issues affecting men and women's daily health.

There are many infrastructural constraints towards the smooth progress of e-Health in Africa, which should get adequate coverage by the African media. For example, many rural areas in Africa do not have electricity, and moreover electricity supply in rural Africa, by and large, is simply erratic, because of frequent power cuts. Other constraints towards e-Health include very limited accessibility to Internet among the African population, language barriers and lack of knowledge on e-Health in the society. Moreover, the equipment for telehealth is too expensive for poor African nations, which is another lacuna that needs adequate media attention.

Is Global Health Exchange a remedy?

There is greater realization that the developed countries including the UK should give increased emphasis to the use of ICT and other new technologies in improving health and health services in developing countries.

According to Lord Crisp, the former NHS' Chief Executive, the UK should do more to help support the health systems in developing countries as south-east Asian and African nations are struggling to tackle diseases due to a shortage of health workers and equipments. In his Global Health Partnerships report, Crisp suggests that new technology and approaches are still not central to international development and more needs to be done to encourage local entrepreneurs to use ICT to improve health services themselves.

Crisp writes: “International agencies in developing countries are already working with commercial organizations in 'emerging markets' to provide investment in, for example, medicines, technology and infrastructure. There needs to be a parallel emphasis on supporting entrepreneurial activity at the local level, improving health as well as helping the people steeped in poverty.”

The report acknowledges that ICT and telemedicine are making some impact in developing countries. An example is the Swinfen Charitable Trust, which offers free medical advice based on images they receive from a digital camera in a medical centre. Another example cited was Computer Aid, which provides refurbished computer hardware.

However, the report also raises concerns about limitations on the use of ICT: “Broadband is still not widespread and is frequently of low density, suitable only for text and not images. Computers are not robust, maintenance is difficult, satellite expensive. In the health sector alone, the WHO has estimated that 50% of technology imported from developed countries is unused in developing countries, simply because there has not been any training.”

An unpublished paper, prepared for the Global Health Workforce Alliance, has shown that where “there are a wide variety of modalities for communication available

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