mHealth is booming in sub-Saharan Africa and is revolutionising the way healthcare services are provided, in a strive towards more equitable and better-quality healthcare.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s healthcare system overview
Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the weakest public health systems in the world, with extremely high morbidity and mortality rates and a big portion of its population lacking access to basic healthcare services. Bearing almost one-fourth of the world’s disease burden, the region can count on only 3% of the healthcare workforce and 1% of the financial healthcare resources.1
Innovations and solutions that can help to expand access to healthcare and increase the quality and affordability of health services are then highly sought and desired.
Hence, it’s no surprise that the last decade saw a boom in digital solutions known as mHealth, aided by the growing mobile penetration and the recent coronavirus pandemic.
Mobile penetration in sub-Saharan Africa
According to the Global System for Mobile Communications Association’s (GSMA) latest report, in 2020, sub-Saharan Africa counted 495 million unique mobile subscribers, a number that is expected to reach 615 million in 2025 (~50% of the population), with ~470 million mobile internet users.2 With a mobile penetration rate of 46%1 (compared to 86% in Europe3), people here are more likely to have access to a mobile phone than to drinking water (30%)4 or basic sanitation services (33%)5.
mHealth and the rise of mHealth solutions in sub-Saharan Africa
But what is mHealth? Although no standardised definition has been established to date, Mobile health, or mHealth, generally encompasses the use of mobile devices and wireless technologies to improve health outcomes and care services6-8.
mHealth solutions may help to enhance health education, improve access to healthcare services, empower self-care, promote disease prevention, track epidemic outbreaks, improve diagnosis and treatment, and allow real-time data management and remote patient monitoring.6,8,9As a result, a plethora of mHealth initiatives have been developed across sub-Saharan African countries to address the healthcare gaps in the region.
Which gaps do mHealth apps address?
Tackling the rise of counterfeit medicines is a pressing challenge and the app ‘mPedigree’, which is available in 8 sub-Saharan African countries, aims to combat this threat by using an SMS authentication service to check product codes and instantly verify a drug’s authenticity.10
Expanding access to medical services and information is another key challenge. Toward this end, the app ‘MedAfrica’ provides online and offline access to health-related content (e.g., symptoms, diagnosis, nutrition) and nearby services (e.g., doctors, hospitals), and connects users to doctors on the go11, whilst the South African app ‘Hello Doctor’ enables users to discuss personal health issues with a registered medical professional via text messages, chats, or remote consultations 24 hours a day.12 Similarly, the app ‘Afya Pap’ connects patients to doctors and provides daily health news and answers to common health-related questions, but on top of that it allows also patients to monitor their blood pressure and blood glucose levels at home, directly sharing data with their doctor.13 Additionally, within the ‘Tiba Yako’ programme14,15, the app has been paired with the digital payment platform ‘M-Tiba’, to also improve healthcare cost-efficiency. ‘M-Tiba’ allows users to manage their private/public insurance and pay for medical treatments through a mobile health wallet; digitally captured medical treatment data are shared anonymously so that health authorities can detect trends.16,17
Where healthcare gaps are less marked, such as in South Africa among the wealthier part of the population, smartwatches paired with mobile health apps have started to emerge, providing greater convenience vs. traditional blood pressure monitors, and offering real-time ECG and blood pressure tracking, skin temperature measurements, and SpO2 and sleep monitoring.18-21
Which challenges are mHealth solutions facing?
Despite the several benefits, there are quite a few challenges that hamper the wide implementation and use of mHealth solutions. The greatest barrier is the vast rural-urban digital divide, with limited network coverage, lower levels of digital literacy, and lack of electricity in rural areas, which are home to 45% of the sub-Saharan African population1. Affordability of feature phones and smartphones, cost of internet access, scant engineering capacity, the absence of guidance and regulations, privacy and data security, interoperability between systems, and the presence of multiple stakeholders in the mHealth ecosystem also represent significant barriers.6,8,9,22
Why should pharma, biotech, and MedTech companies jump in?
Although improvements in the quality of care do not depend merely on technology, mHealth has the potential to shape the way healthcare is delivered and the way in which patients engage with medical services, aided by the ever-increasing number of mobile connections.
Hence, in sub-Saharan Africa, pharma, biotech, and MedTech companies should start leveraging more and more mHealth solutions to improve patient care and drive innovation. However, they should keep in mind that there is no one size fits all, and adapting mHealth solutions to the local context and needs, is critical for establishing buy-in. Off-line functionality, tailored digital content, use of local language and local collaborations are all aspects that need to be taken into consideration to ensure widespread community engagement and uptake.23
How can market research support pharma, biotech and MedTech companies in developing tailored mHealth solutions?
Market research can provide insight into mHealth users’ preferences, perceptions, and needs, as well as assess the evolving market landscape and trends, to support the development of solutions that resonates best with the relevant stakeholders.
Get in touch if you would like to hear more about the services we offer and discuss how the Vox.Bio team can support your business needs.
- The Critical Shortage of Healthcare Workers in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Comprehensive Review. 2018.
- GSMA Report. The Mobile Economy Sub-Saharan Africa 2021.
- GSMA Report. The Mobile Economy Europe 2021.
- 2020 Worldbank data on drinking water in sub-Saharan Africa.
- 2020 Worldbank data on use of basic sanitation services in sub-Saharan Africa.
- Global Observatory for eHealth 2011 Report. mHealth New horizons for health through mobile technologies.
- National Institute of Health.
- mHealth Strategy 2015-2019 South Africa Report
- mHealth Use of appropriate digital technologies for public health (March 2018).
- medigree mobile app.
- MedAfrica mobile app.
- Hello Doctor mobile app.
- Boehringer Ingelheim press release March 2019.
- Tiba Yako program.
- Afya Pap mobile app.
- M-Tiba mobile app.
- Kenya: a payment platform for healthcare protection. 2019.
- Samsung Galaxy Watch Active2 South Africa.
- Samsung Health Monitor South Africa.
- Huawei Watch D South Africa.
- HUAWEI Health app South Africa.
- TJ Betjeman, SE Soghoian, MP Foran. mHealth in Sub-Saharan Africa. International Journal of Telemedicine and Applications. 2013.
- C Holst et. Al. Sub-Saharan Africa—the new breeding ground for global digital health. Digital Health. 2020.