The Network Effect: Ensuring Effective Healthcare in Africa

Implementing effective healthcare in Africa will require multifarious stakeholders to collaborate in a more effective and efficient way to optimise the scarce resources available while maximising the potential of a growing population. I would argue that making healthcare work in Africa is inherently a network problem: no single organisation can solve it in isolation, especially when governments are poorly equipped and face a deficit in skills, funds, and political will – which is compounded by the fact that the continent is made up of 54 culturally and geographically diverse countries. We must transcend historical geographical and organisational boundaries if we are to fulfil Africa’s promise.

This means patients, doctors, specialists, researchers, hospitals, and clinics – in fact, the entire complex value network – needs to be made more coherent and collaborative across both the public and private sectors. And the bedrock of this coherence is data: quality, shared and trusted data that is made available through effective and locally relevant technology platforms. It goes without saying that this must be done securely, ethically and respecting the individual’s privacy.

Networks driving all facets of life

All human society is itself a vast network of people, families, neighbourhoods, cities, provinces, and countries, connected to each other by road, rail, air and sea links, by electricity grids, by telecommunications, and by water waste and reticulation grids. We are, at our core, a networked – and networking – social species.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is digitising these vast human networks by reducing all the elements within the networks – and the interactions between different elements – into data sets that can be collected, analysed, and leveraged to gain insights that create value. Technology companies such as Amazon, SAP Ariba, Facebook, SAP Concur and LinkedIn, and others have built networks to radically change the economics, utility, and convenience of life for many of the planet’s citizens. The healthcare industry now faces radical change and the opportunity for exponential improvement if it can leverage its own networks by using technology.

Data insights gained from the healthcare network can also guide training and skills development to ensure healthcare professionals are equipped with the latest and most relevant medical and treatment information. This will hugely improve the delivery of patient care, especially in rural areas where access to information is often limited by insufficient connectivity or outdated technology.

New tech bringing network potential to life

When we combine the ability of networks to gather and connect data with tools such as machine learning to analyse data, we can start exploring ways of how networks can accelerate – or even automate – decision-making on behalf of network participants. This could have a transformative effect on the way healthcare professionals respond to outbreaks and epidemics by optimising the use of available resources in real time using actual on-the-ground data.

At an individual level, machine learning could also make cancer treatment more effective by identifying characteristics that help predict the effectiveness of a specific treatment on a specific patient. An oncologist could collate the results of all these tests, combine it with patient data and treatment results, and aggregate the data before machine learning algorithms are employed to discover which treatments are most effective. This way, you could reduce the amount of a treatment needed for a specific patient, as well as eliminate the occurrence of unnecessary dosages.

By pulling data from other sources within the healthcare network, such as data on localised genetic and environmental factors that could influence treatment effectiveness, healthcare providers suddenly increase the likelihood of ensuring a positive patient outcome exponentially. As technologies relating to the IoT become more pervasive, the data sets available to healthcare professionals will also increase exponentially. Without the appropriate technology platform that can collect, store, and analyse data in real time, healthcare providers will struggle to derive optimal value from available patient data.

Keep it local, relevant

In the African context, it is important to bear local technological limitations in mind. Even in the more developed markets such as South Africa, smartphone penetration is a lowly 40%. While this is likely to improve as the technology becomes more affordable and pervasive, any technology-supported healthcare initiative must accommodate a lack of smartphone access.

Technology is not a solution in and of itself though. It is critical that the use of data in healthcare networks take cognisance of privacy and ethics over and above commercial interests. Care should also be taken of unintended consequences of technology implementation. For example, in the US, teen depression and suicide rates have increased dramatically since 2012, when smartphone penetration crossed the 50% mark.

As the digital transformation of the African continent picks up speed, new opportunities to improve the lives of all its citizens emerge. It is important that we start with a solid foundation – or network – that can integrate the various components of the healthcare value chain, and deliver actionable insights and information to on-the-ground practitioners.