Medical technology has evolved from introducing doctors to new equipment to use inside private practices and hospitals to connecting patients and doctors thousands of miles away through telecommunications. It is not uncommon in today’s world for patients to hold video conferences with physicians to save time and money normally spent on traveling to another geographic location or send health information instantaneously to any specialist or doctor in the world. With hospitals and medical practices using technology on the job, physicians can now have access to any type of information they need – from drug information, research and studies, patient history or records and more.
There are various forms of technology advancement in healthcare ranging from Technological equipment, Artificial Intelligence, Digital and Mobile health. However for the purposes of this article, the focus would be on Digital/Mobile Health Technology and its impact on healthcare delivery.
DIGITAL AND MOBILE HEALTH TECHNOLOGY
Digital/Mobile health refers to the practice of medicine supported by mobile devices such as mobile phones, tablets, computers, personal digital assistants and the wireless infrastructure. This encompasses all applications of telecommunications and multimedia technologies for the delivery of healthcare and health information.
The most common digital health applications include: tele-health/ telemedicine, education and awareness, diagnostic and treatment support, disease/epidemic outbreak tracking and health monitoring. The increased penetration of smart phones and expanding wireless network coverage provides digital health systems with new possibilities to address challenges associated with accessibility, quality, effectiveness, efficiency and cost of healthcare. This will impact how consumers manage overall health and communicate with their physicians.
The development of mobile health technology caters to the constraints felt by healthcare systems of developing nations. These constraints include high population growth, a high burden of disease prevalence, low health care workforce, large numbers of rural inhabitants, and limited financial resources to support healthcare infrastructure and health information systems. The rapid rise in mobile phone penetration in developing countries increases the potential of a better delivery of healthcare through Mobile health technology.
The following are some of the applications of mobile health technology in healthcare;
Telemedicine is a combination of medical expertise, medical equipment, computer hardware and software and communication technology, by which a patient can be examined, investigated, monitored and treated by a medical expert in distant place. Patients can consult with a doctor virtually and get medical help as though it were physical. Usually people have to stand in long queues to get an appointment with the doctor but now patients can easily book appointments and consult with a doctor online.
- EDUCATION, AWARENESS AND IMPROVED COMMUNICATION
Technological innovations in healthcare have made it possible for health care organizations and patients to communicate with each other. It is now much easier for doctors to educate their patients.
Education and awareness programs within the mobile health field are largely about the spreading of mass information from source to recipient through short message services (SMS). SMS messages are sent directly to users’ phones to offer information about various subjects, including testing and treatment methods, availability of health services, and disease management. SMSs provide an advantage of being relatively unobtrusive, offering patients confidentiality in environments Additionally, SMSs provide an avenue to reach far-reaching areas, which may have limited access to public health information and education, health clinics, and a deficit of healthcare workers.
- DISEASE SURVEILLANCE, REMOTE DATA COLLECTION, AND EPIDEMIC OUTBREAK TRACKING
Projects within this area operate to utilize mobile phones’ ability to collect and transmit data quickly, cheaply, and relatively efficiently. Data concerning the location and levels of specific diseases can help medical systems or ministries of health or other organizations identify outbreaks and better target medical resources to areas of greatest need. Such projects can be particularly useful during emergencies, in order to identify where the greatest medical needs are within a country.
- TREATMENT SUPPORT AND MEDICATION COMPLIANCE FOR PATIENTS
Remote monitoring and treatment support allows for greater involvement in the continued care of patients. Within environments of limited resources and beds and subsequently a ‘outpatient’ culture, remote monitoring allows healthcare workers to better track patient conditions, medication regimen adherence, and follow-up scheduling.
- ELECTRONIC MEDICAL RECORDS
Electronic Medical Record (EMR) dispenses with keeping large number of files large number and makes use of technology to store patient information digitally. This allows the easy access to patient’s medical records.
Telepharmacy is the delivery of pharmaceutical care by virtual means to patients without having physical access to a doctor or pharmacist. Telepharmacy services include drug therapy monitoring, patient counseling, prior authorization and refill authorization for prescription drugs, and monitoring of formulary compliance with the aid of teleconferencing or videoconferencing.
TECHNOLOGY & HEALTHCARE IN NIGERIA
Efficient and effective health care delivery has been a major challenge in Nigeria. However, Nigeria has witnessed a substantial shift towards the adoption of innovation and technology which is gradually being applied to the healthcare industry.
A critical application of Technology in healthcare would deliver high-quality health care services. Digital and mobile healthcare enables remote, isolated and rural areas to have clinical support from those hospitals and medical systems with a higher level of medical expertise. It partially relieves the pressure on the medical experts due to their limited number and extends their expertise to needy people in isolated remote locations. With advancements in electronics, communications, software and hardware, it has become possible to transmit many vital parameters to health care services delivery.
A number of Startups in Nigeria have created healthcare solutions in different areas of healthcare. In Telemedicine, we have Kangpe and Hudibia which employs SMS and Mobile App platforms respectively to give patients access to medical experts and quality healthcare. In the provision of electronic health services, we have Helium Health, a key player in the provision of electronic medical records services to medical institutions. Their services enable medical institutions to store patient information electronically
Drugstoc and Gen-rx are making quite an impact in the Telepharmacy department. Drugstoc helps licensed pharmacies, hospitals, and medical professionals order pharmaceutical products directly from officially accredited distributors while Gen-rx is an application designed to detect drugs close to expiration date among drug stock, detect potential drug overdose before drug is dispensed to patients, and detect wrong drug combination.
InStrat global health solutions provides a platform that allows for the early detection of diseases through its early Warning Disease Outbreak Recognition application while Lifebank mobilizes blood donations, takes inventory of all blood available in the country, and delivers blood to where it is needed.
Health aviation is also gradually coming into the Nigerian healthcare scene. Flying Doctors Nigeria (FDN) is a Medical Emergency Service that specializes in air ambulances, medevac, medico-logistics services, remote site medical solutions services, medical infrastructural development and medical training services.
These are a few of the Healthcare innovations that have been made in the technology scene by start-ups in Nigeria. It is only expected that there would be an increase in the creation of digital healthcare initiatives as this would greatly improve healthcare provision in Nigeria.
LEGAL FRAMEWORK FOR HEALTH & TECHNOLOGY IN NIGERIA
The Legal framework for healthcare is not very robust and there is barely any standard laws regulating technology and healthcare in Nigeria. Founders who are willing to create mobile health solutions may be skeptical because there are no set guidelines to follow. Investors may also be unwilling to invest in the health tech solutions in order to mitigate risk because there are no clear cut rules or regulation for this sector.
However, there are a number of laws that would give an insight into what is expected and the necessary steps to follow in creating or investing in a Mobile health solution. The following are some of the laws that apply to Technology and health care in Nigeria.
- THE NATIONAL HEALTH ACT
The NHA contains fundamental provisions which if effectively and efficiently implemented will have a tremendous impact on health-care access and universal health coverage, health-care cost, quality and standards, practice by health-care providers, as well as patient care and health outcomes. The seven parts of the NHA are Responsibility for health and eligibility for health services and establishment of National Health System, Health Establishments and Technologies, Rights and Obligations of Users and Healthcare Personnel, National Health Research and Information System, Human Resources for Health, Control of Use of Blood, Blood Products, Tissue and Gametes in Humans, and Regulations and Miscellaneous Provisions.
- PATIENTS BILL OF RIGHTS (PBOR)
The Consumer Protection Council (CPC) recently released the Patient’s Bill of Rights. The Bill is aimed at ensuring easy access to quality health care service in the country. The PBOR is a list of rights already contained in extant laws but recently reduced into a document to sensitise the members of the public.
- NIITDA DATA PROTECTION REGULATION 2019
National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) recently released the Data Protection Regulation 2019. The regulation amongst other things seek to protect the online privacy of Nigerians as a fundamental right, build safety and trust in the country’s digital ecosystem and to propel Nigerian entities for global competitive advantage. The Regulation will apply to individuals, public and private institutions processing personal data of Nigerians resident in Nigeria or in any part of the world.
The healthcare system in Nigeria presents both economic as well as physical barriers to accessing quality medical services, resulting in poor health outcomes. Private sector players have a major role in the Nigerian healthcare sector. Collectively, private markets have the potential and capacity to fill the gaps and constraints faced by government-financed and government-provided healthcare. There is a huge vacuum in light of finance, manpower and technology. With the emergence of health tech companies, the proliferation of Mobile Healthcare platforms would cater to majority of the challenges in healthcare provision.
A major setback for health tech founders is funding and regulatory laws. Investors are mostly unwilling to invest in healthcare startups because it’s still slightly novel and there is no standard legal framework regulating the sector. Although there may be no standard legal framework for healthcare start-ups currently, there are laws that regulate Incorporation, Licensing and operation of health and technology start-ups respectively. These laws give a basic idea of necessary compliance measures to be taken.
With regards to the profitability of healthcare startups, the number of private hospitals and private equity investors in the healthcare sector allude to the fact that the healthcare industry is highly profitable. Investing in the healthcare industry can deliver compelling financial returns and have an enormous potential development impact.
Founders and investors are encouraged to explore health tech startups because healthcare in Nigeria should not be dependent on just the government but equally on the impactful solutions provided by private individuals.