CAN YOU HEAL ME NOW?

Nigeria 2017 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | FOCUS: MEDICAL TECHNOLOGY

Mobile apps have been effective in bringing medical information and specialized care to the populations that need it most, and the Nigerian government has plans to further develop their use to improve healthcare outcomes.

The growth of Nigeria's healthcare industry has been limited by a number of infrastructural issues. The government has sought to modernize the sector and increase access to facilities, signing a number of agreements with medical schools and teaching hospitals to bring new diagnostic centers and specialist facilities to the country. Another area with the potential to dramatically increase access is mobile technology. New government-funded mobile health platform initiatives have helped improve prenatal care and limit disease outbreaks, and industry members hope to implement numerous additional applications in the future.

Nigerians with the financial means often choose to seek medical attention abroad rather than deal with the domestic healthcare system, which has struggled with inadequate facilities and chronic personnel shortages. Poorer Nigerians, unable to travel to high-quality facilities, suffer inferior outcomes as a result of these health facilities. The National Primary Healthcare Development Agency, the government's main office working to develop primary healthcare nationwide, has been working to meet international goals by following successful healthcare models and implementing new technologies. A number of new strategies have arrived on the market in recent years, but the emerging mobile health initiatives coming from the agency are perhaps the most exciting.

Mobile health technology is particularly important because it has the potential to solve a number of problems at the same time. First, a widely available and well-structured network of mobile healthcare services would improve basic information gathering capabilities, giving Nigerian health officials much-needed population statistics and allowing them to more accurately gauge the extent of disease outbreaks or incidents. It would also give healthcare consumers unprecedented access to doctors, especially specialists. Nigeria's healthcare centers are concentrated in a few high-population regions of the country, making it extremely difficult for rural populations to access any kind of specialized care. Mobile apps have the potential to eliminate this distance by putting Nigerians in contact with specialists.

While still being implemented, the current mobile healthcare situation appears to be in the form of an app or service on mobile phones. Mobile phone technology has spread at explosive rates in Nigeria and other developing countries, with mobile phone penetration reaching 94% in 2016. This included smartphone penetration of 30% thanks to an estimated 15.5 million new users in 2016 alone. Already, many smartphones are able to perform simple yet vitally important tasks such as tracking heart rates or calculating proper pharmaceutical dosages.

One such concrete example is maternal health tracking. Despite large healthcare investment, Nigeria's infant mortality rate of 74 deaths per 1,000 live births is more than 10 times the OECD average and one of the highest in the world; in addition, Nigeria accounts for 14% of global maternal mortality. Mobile health programs promote healthy pregnancies by offering advice on avoiding disease, finding prenatal care, and putting pregnant women in regular communication with doctors. Mobile apps have also been developed to schedule appointments with mobile ultrasound units. Since the program is new, there is a limited amount of data on how the program has affected outcomes, but early results are positive. Researchers have found that even the simplest actions like sending appointment reminders has helped attendance improve dramatically.

Dealing with infectious disease outbreaks is another promising use of mobile health platforms. Authorities realized that mobile technologies were perfectly suited for the kind of quick communication and awareness network they needed during the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Mobile health networks offer authorities the ability to disseminate much-needed information on a massive scale at minimal cost, which then has the ability to further spread and promote good health practices through communities. Authorities credit mobile campaigns to educating health workers for the relative small size of Nigeria's Ebola outbreak in late 2014; only 20 Nigerians died, compared to nearly 8,000 in Sierra Leone and 7,700 in Liberia.

Application of mobile technology will require more than just distributing the devices and expecting positive results. Sector leaders understand that training and awareness campaigns are needed to increase mobile literacy and help the health industry fully achieve the full capabilities of its technological investments. Moving forward, the government will work to increase the spread of these mobile healthcare technologies, adding new features to improve health status tracking and communication between centers.