Mirembe, 24, lives in a rural village in north-east Uganda, where access to healthcare is limited. Mirembe is pregnant and walks, cradling her swollen belly and fanning herself from the heat, 15 kilometres to the closest clinic to check on her unborn child.
Hundreds of expectant mothers, elderly men and women, and sickly children line the corridors of the clinic patiently awaiting medical attention. Midwives and nurses are few, and they wearily dart from patient to patient doing what they can to help. Mirembe will wait six hours to be attended to.
When she’s finally seen, she’s told the clinic doesn’t have an ultrasound machine. If she wants to have an ultrasound, she must travel to the Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda’s largest public hospital, where she must pay 20,000 Ugandan shillings, equivalent to about US$5, for a prenatal visit. In this part of the world, that is a significant amount of money.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), about 830 women die from pregnancy or childbirth-related complications around the world every day. It’s estimated that in 2015, roughly 303 000 women died during and after pregnancy and childbirth. Many of these deaths were in low-resource locations like Uganda, and most could have been prevented.
However, technology is helping to eliminate some of the challenges of distance and lack of trained medical staff. Mirembe can now hear her unborn child’s heartbeat from the comfort of her own home through an innovative app call WinSenga, which reassures her that both she and her baby are healthy.
WinSenga is a mobile tool, supported by Microsoft technologies, which helps mothers with prenatal care. The idea was conceived when the Microsoft Imagine Cup competition inspired then-university students Okello and Aaron Tushabe to use their computer science skills to tackle some of Africa’s biggest problems. They were motivated by the plight of mothers like Mirembe who live outside the reach of modern medical care.
The handheld device scans the womb of a pregnant woman and reports foetal weight, position, breathing patterns, gestational age, and heart rate. The app makes use of a trumpet-shaped device and a microphone which transmits the data to a smart phone. The mobile application plays the part of the nurse’s ear and recommends a course of action. The analysis and recommendations are uploaded to the cloud and can be accessed by a doctor anywhere.
This is just one example of how Africa, a continent that bears one-quarter of the global disease burden but only has two percent of the world’s doctors, could outperform developed nations’ healthcare systems by leapfrogging over inefficiencies and legacy infrastructure.
In fact, digital healthcare in the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region is booming with the proliferation of disruptive solutions underpinned by 21st century innovations like cloud, mobile, Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Let’s talk telemedicine
One trend revolutionising the delivery of healthcare in MEA is telemedicine, which is the use of telecommunication and IT to provide clinical healthcare over long distances. Given the region’s high rate of mobile penetration, telemedicine is growing rapidly. In fact, the telemedicine market in MEA was estimated at $2.19 billion in 2015 and is projected to reach $3.67 billion in 2020.
Forward-thinking countries like Botswana are making swift progress when it comes to the implementation of sustainable telemedicine projects. Microsoft and the Botswana Innovation Hub launched Africa’s first telemedicine service over TV white spaces in 2017. Through this initiative, clinics in outlying areas of Botswana can now access specialised care remotely using TV white spaces, which are unused broadcasting frequencies in the wireless spectrum.