DENVER, CO – Growing middle classes, rising GDPs, and the remarkable spread of mobile technology across the continent are all part of what journalists and economists alike have taken to calling “The African Miracle.” But this recent boom in economic growth has brought with it the non-communicable diseases common in more affluent regions, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, without eliminating Africa’s persistent healthcare issues, among them malaria and the HIV/AIDs epidemic.
In an attempt to address these problems, new technologies like telemedicine, electronic medical records, and smartphone-based health tracking applications are being used by Africa’s national healthcare systems to leapfrog the infrastructure gap that currently separates them from the healthcare systems of other nations. Standing at the forefront of this digital health transformation is Kaakpema “KP” Yelpaala, the founder and CEO of access.mobile, whose patient-engagement platform ClinicCommunicator has been successfully utilized in hospitals and clinics throughout East Africa.
CyberMed News recently sat down with Mr. Yelpaala to discuss his work creating digital health solutions for the healthcare systems of Sub-Saharan Africa, and also to shed light on how the lessons he has learned working in the primarily mobile-based African digital health market can help American entrepreneurs better navigate the current digital health transformation of the US healthcare system.
Highlights from the Podcast
The Unique Opportunity of “The African Miracle”
KP: “In Africa, many people are moving to cities looking for a better quality of life. That’s creating an opportunity for those who want to build out hospital systems, private clinics, and other health infrastructure to respond to this new demand. On the one hand, we have the governments that have been working very hard over several decades to improve health systems and provide better access to healthcare. But this new urban dynamic, and more investment in the private health sector, has created a massive opportunity to improve people’s health standards.
“And what these facilities are starting to embrace now is that technology plays a role in that. To provide quality healthcare services and engage patients inside and outside of the hospital, the mobile phone is the natural go-to because everyone has one.
“For access.mobile, the opportunity in Africa is exciting because we find that whereas other markets have gone through a technology evolution over several decades and have legacy technologies that they’ve been using, in Africa we’re in essence starting from scratch in many scenarios. That means that we can start from the very beginning, offering the technologies that make sense for the current scenario and the future health scenarios that are coming.”
The Potentially Huge Market for Telemedicine in East Africa
KP: “When I was at the East Africa Healthcare Federation Conference in Rwanda about two months ago, someone mentioned that East Africans would have spent one billion dollars by the end of 2015 on healthcare services in India. Now we ask ourselves a question: Why are people in Kenya or Tanzania or Rwanda or Uganda going to India for healthcare? Well, if they can afford it and they have certain types of specialized care needs, there’s a reluctance to trust that the healthcare system in their country of origin has the personnel, the equipment, and the capabilities to address those needs.
“Flying to India from Kenya for healthcare is something that only a small proportion of the population can afford. We think about things such as telemedicine, and we realize that if we can identify places where there is health infrastructure – where there are the facilities, the people, the expertise – and we can link them to places where people may not have that infrastructure, then we can basically create virtual health networks that will allow people to engage the healthcare system in new and creative ways.
“This may mean that the person in Kenya that’s flying to India may decide not to fly to India, and also that the person in Kenya, or Uganda, or Tanzania, or even Ghana, that could never afford that trip would still have access to a certain standard of care.”
Technology Innovation is Ahead of Regulation
KP: “What regulators are challenged with around the world is that technology innovations oftentimes are ahead of regulation. In my opinion the key reason for this is that you can’t predict technological disruption. As new innovations occur in our marketplace and our lives, regulatory frameworks are trying to catch up to how technology is evolving.
“Now the real challenge is how regulators and the private sector and other stakeholders find the right balance of ensuring that we’re doing no harm while also allowing innovators to thrive. Different countries are doing it in different ways, but I believe that if you’re a tech entrepreneur with a big vision and you’re looking towards innovations across countries or even globally, you’ll inherently find yourself in this space where the rules haven’t necessarily caught up with you.
“I believe that as an entrepreneur you really have to think carefully about how you engage with governments, how you play a part in the discussion, and how you work with civil society to shape regulatory paradigms that make sense for everyone.”