South Africa is leading the way in mobile health or mHealth – the practice of medicine and public health with the use of mobile devices – and has a track record that shows the development of several successful mHealth initiatives.
The eHealthConsult is a secure web-based telemedicine – the practice of transferring medical information through the phone or the internet – platform that that allows clinicians to connect to and communicate with colleagues and specialists anywhere in South Africa.
The division of Telemedicine and mHealth at the Medical Research Council has developed workstations to facilitate telemedicine in South Africa, by making basic components such as computers, cameras and reliable internet connectivity more available in the public sector.
The teleophthalmology consultation platform was designed by Cape Town-based clinicians and complies with the necessary security requirements that apply to the electronic transfer of patient data.
Non-profit organisation HIVSA launched a mobile service in 2012 that enables users to keep up to date with information regarding HIV, tuberculosis, pregnancy and baby health, and more.
The service is meant to be an ever-evolving resource that is available anywhere and anytime, in several official languages such as Zulu, Sotho, Tsonga and Afrikaans.
Connecting doctors and patients
The latest mHealth service to reach South African shores is FolUp, a mobile and web-based health communication system. Headquartered in the US, the application connects physicians to patients for free and creates a platform for them to collaborate more on their health, symptoms and treatments. It is available for Android and Apple iOS devices.
According to Simon Spurr who is the co-founder and head of operations for Folup, doctors can use the application to track their patients’ symptoms, provide data on how they feel and report about how they respond to medication. The system can also be used for following up on patients after consultations.
“Patients’ identities are kept private,” Spurr says. “However, overall generalised statistics and data of all the users’ information could be sold on to the likes of, for example, research institutes.”
FolUp allows doctors to devote more time to patients and keep track of their wellbeing.
According to Spurr, the FolUp platform could help patients to gain better control over their conditions, boost levels of emotional well-being and accelerate patient healing.
The platform is also part of a network which allows patients to interact with existing forums, medical apps and software. These in turn will connect with other medical apps, peripheral devices and self-help tools.
Through the patients’ charted online history with blogs and diary entries, doctors will have easier access to their information.
“Patients need to take ownership of their health, control over their diseases and manage themselves better,” Spurr says.
He adds that although much has been asked about making FolUp available to people in rural areas, for now the pilot, although free, is only available to individual patients and consumers of mHealth apps.
Africa needs more doctors
At last year’s Mobile Health Africa, the conference’s director Andrea Monteiro revealed that Africa carries more than 24% of the global burden of disease but has an average of only two doctors per 10 000 people – a statistic that adds to the challenge of providing healthcare for the majority of people in Africa.
South Africa represents the ideal platform for the evolution of mHealth services, according to Monteiro. “The country has a brilliant telecoms infrastructure, both in terms of service provisioning and technology and is home to several entrepreneurial NGOs currently investing in mobile technologies.
“On a social level, mobile penetration rates are very high, and other mobile services such as mobile money/mobile banking are already well established and used successfully on a day-to-day basis.”