Embracing digital healthcare in Kenya

The digital revolution is upon us. Over the years we have seen technology become embedded across many industries ranging from banking, telecommunications, retail, insurance and even Government. Kenya is no stranger to this digital revolution, with mobile money platforms allowing those who were previously financially disenfranchised access to financial services.

Kenya’s embrace of technology can also be seen in the public sector, with e-government helping provide access to services previously burdened by laborious manual processes and red tape. Kenyans will know the most infamous among these processes previously included getting a new national ID or driver’s licence.

Digital healthcare, particularly in developing economies, has been slower in the uptake of the technology revolution. In an industry that discourages all but the most prudent, high-return investments, the numerous benefits that digital technology can provide to the quality of patient care and reduced costs over the long term are at risk of being overlooked.

In Kenya, the health agenda has focused on disease-centred programmes; maternal and child health, HIV, malaria, tuberculosis and immunisation. These diseases account for an overwhelming majority of deaths in the country. Unfortunately this comes at the expense of broader health system strengthening programmes such as infrastructure, financing, medical equipment and digital health. As a result, developing countries have invested and built strong vertical programmes targeting specific diseases, but very few have invested in strengthening systems for health as a whole.

As incomes rise and the middle class grows, people are spending more on healthcare and demanding better healthcare services. With changing lifestyles and people living longer, Kenya’s life expectancy has risen from 51 years in the year 2000 to 62 years in 2014. This means there is a tectonic epidemiological shift from communicable to chronic disease such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer in developing economies like Kenya.

Developed economies also have their challenges with affordability of care, the key difference however is their fundamental infrastructure is in place and their population growth remains relatively steady.

We have observed across other industries that consumers are no longer passive patients, but have become engaged, with access to new tools and better information.

The Kenyan health system is currently struggling to cope with the rising cost and demand for quality health-care services, against the backdrop of a shortage of skilled health care professionals.

Traditional digital health solutions such as Electronic Health Records (EHR), which are popular in the developed markets, require significant initial investment to purchase, install and maintain.

It is for this reason that adoption in the developing economies has been low. But new, non-traditional solutions such as cloud-based or open-source EHR can help health providers digitize at a fraction of the cost.

For best outcomes, other healthcare innovations such as telemedicine, mHealth applications and e-prescriptions should be built around the EHR. There is an opportunity for Kenya to leverage on its growing internet penetration via mobile to design more cost effective solutions to leapfrog the developed nations to provide quality, affordable, and patient-centric care.

Technologies such as mobile and internet that have a high penetration rate in Kenya can help to improve access to medical services. Kenya has been at the forefront of adoption of mHealth, which are health solutions through the mobile phone. This can help free up congested health facilities from dealing with non-life-threatening conditions to allow them more time to provide better care to patients that require more critical care.

In addition to improving service delivery, automation has the potential to improve the management of financial resources. Health facilities suffer significant revenue leakage due to manual processes which can result in services provided not being accurately recorded and billed.

By automating the tracking of services provided to a patient from registration to discharge, human error is reduced and more accurate billing can be achieved.

Automation can help ensure that better management of drugs and other medical inventory items to minimise loses; prevent understocking which results in having to send patients to external pharmacies or overstocking resulting in expiry of drugs.

Digital healthcare is not simply about the tool that will be implemented but rather a combination of the technology, people and processes that come together to find more better and cost effective way of catering to patient needs.

Rather than viewing investment in digital healthcare as added expense, healthcare providers should view digital healthcare as part and parcel of their strategy for reduction in costs and continued growth of services offered.