Cancer is an increasing health burden in sub-Saharan Africa with high rates of prostate, breast and cervix cancer.
An estimated 752,000 new cancer cases (4 per cent of global total) and 506,000 cancer deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa in 2018 and the number is predicted to more than double in 20 years. In Kenya, cancer is the third leading cause of death after infectious and cardiovascular diseases. From 2012 to 2018, the annual incidence of cancer increased from 37,000 to 47,887 new cases. During the same period, annual cancer mortality rose nearly 16 per cent, from 28,500 to 32,987 cancer-related deaths.
Long waiting times and distance between patients’ homes and healthcare facilities are part of the challenges faced by patients living with cancer and an ethnographic study conducted by the University of KwaZulu-Natal confirmed that the distance from the hospital, or travel burden, negatively impacted those affected by cancer. In Kenya, nearly 23 per cent of patients do not seek healthcare due to several barriers, including high costs, need to travel long distances and lack of healthcare literacy.
This can be addressed through adoption of digital health. Telemedicine, deployment of ICT to deliver healthcare digitally, can be adopted to limit physical human interaction.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, patients appreciated the virtual medical experience without having to leave home.
We are delighted to support this cause with the launch of a new App for information sharing in oncology treatment. Oncomate is an App designed for daily use that provides cancer patients on Pfizer therapies with content on lifestyle tips, acts as a platform to record ‘feelings’ and generate reports that a patient can share with their health care provider, in addition to serving as a medication pill reminder thereby improving overall quality of care.
Digital health solutions may be the answer to some challenges that public hospitals are faced with, such as a lack of qualified health care professionals, no provision for additional human resources and equipment failures.
However, there are barriers to implementing this in sub-Saharan Africa, including urban-rural and gender divides in connectivity, access to mobile devices, low digital literacy, high cost of internet access, and limited access to electricity.
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To make this work, the adoption of digital health solutions must be locally relevant and supported by governments and key stakeholders, with connectivity and low digital literacy being addressed.
Before Covid-19, patients using remote consultation was low (only 6 per cent); however, digital health has gained momentum and at least 19 per cent of consultations are expected to continue remotely.
This shows there is scope to innovate digital health as a whole. Information released by the World Health Organisation revealed that as a result of Covid-19, more than 120 health technology innovations have been piloted or adopted in Africa.
These include WhatsApp Chatbots in South Africa, self-diagnostic tools in Angola, contact tracing apps in Ghana and mobile health information tools in Nigeria. Countries with most innovations were South Africa (13 percent), Kenya (10 per cent), Nigeria (8 per cent) and Rwanda (6 per cent).
Finally, healthcare stakeholders must work together, invest in and increase access to digital healthcare solutions.
The writer is Pfizer Kenya Country Manager and East Africa Cluster Lead