Telemedicine is a term used to refer to providing medical care and services via telecommunication technologies and quickly changing how we access health care services and diagnosis. The telemedicine market is now valued at over $48.3 billion; the growth is attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, as many countries went on lockdown, but people still needed to access medical care.
Telemedicine has allowed medical practitioners to provide services remotely through tech services such as video conferencing, monitoring systems, and mobile applications. Patients can access the services at their convenience when they want to, without the hustle of having to go to and from the hospitals.
Despite the practice being more common in Western nations, African countries also picked it up as the Internet became more available in the region. We will look at the rise of telemedicine in three sub-Saharan African countries: Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa.
Telemedicine boosted Kenya in 2021 after the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Council (KMPDC) gave the green light to 20 hospitals to roll out the services to contain the COVID-19 virus.
About 70% of Kenyans live in rural areas and need easy access to medical facilities. When they reach the facilities, they can only receive primary care from the centres’ nurses and community health workers.
One of the major hospitals to adopt telemedicine is the Kenyatta University Teaching, Referral, and Research Hospital (KUTRRH).
During the COVID period, medical practitioners from the hospital could conduct tests and observations using digital equipment such as thermometers and pulse oximeters.
Another app called AfyaBora allows patients to access medical care and consultation via the Internet through the web and their mobile application. Doctors can examine the history of your symptoms in the web session and diagnose your condition. Depending on the situation, they may prescribe medications or suggest laboratory tests. Their consultation fee starts at Ksh 700, and some of their services include problems with performance in bed, skin problems, and vaginal infections.
To access the online medical consultation services, you will need to register on the website or download their app and complete the registration process. The registration process is straightforward and requires only your identification number and password.
Once registered, you can log in and click on the “Consult a Doctor” link to describe your symptoms to your doctor. After submitting your consultation request, a doctor will reach out to you as soon as possible, either by phone or email.
The doctor will then provide a diagnosis and write a prescription if needed. Medication can be delivered to you through one of their pharmacy partners, and they can also request lab investigations if necessary.
MyDawa is another online pharmacy that delivers all your prescriptions to your doorstep. They have a wide variety of medications at affordable prices. You can get medicines for any condition, from stomach pain to hypertension medication. There is also an option to upload a prescription from the doctor.
The app or website works with any other delivery application. You have to create an account and select your delivery location. Then you will choose your mode of payment and start shopping for your preferred products. Add them to your cart, check out, make the payment, and wait to receive your medication or beauty product.
The history of telemedicine in Nigeria dates back to 2007 when the Federal Ministry of Health and the National Space Research and Development Agency launched their first project in six states. Nigeria has a vast population of about 200 million, and a majority of the population does not have access to proper health care. Telemedicine requires the use of the Internet, but 51% of the country’s population does not have access to the Internet.
Some of the telemedicine providers include:
Health Connect 247
This site offers Nigerians affordable health care around the clock. They manage conditions ranging from malaria to chronic disease and musculoskeletal issues. Their services are available in all the local languages spoken in Nigeria.
The registration process is straightforward. First, you must download the app to your device, verify your number, set your password, and complete your profile. Then you are free to call the doctors and book your sessions. Their monthly rates start at 1,000 nairas.
Tremendous is considered the leading telemedicine service in the country and offers round-the-clock care for individuals and families, depending on the subscription plan they select. They aim to provide quality, affordable, and easily accessible care to needy people. Patients can order laboratory services from the comfort of their homes.
Other notable telemedicine providers in the country include CribMD, iWello, Medsaf, and LifeBank.
The first telemedicine system in South Africa was designed in 1998. Like many African countries, a massive population in South Africa cannot get or access the medical care they need due to a lack of a robust primary health care system and a lack of trained professionals to handle the cases.
This app is one of the country’s most commonly used telemedicine apps, and it offers 24/7 care to its clients. Users can also get their subscriptions via text after a diagnosis, and the app also has a reminder that reminds them to take their medication.
Patients using this app can scan for doctors available in their vicinity and schedule appointments. The app also allows users and patients to check the doctor’s qualifications for verification. They offer treatment for various illnesses such as appendicitis, fistula, hernia, gallstone, blurry vision, and gynecological issues. Other health apps in the country include Tata Health, DocsApp 247, and MFine.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Telemedicine in Online Medical Consultations
Advantages of Telemedicine
- Increased accessibility: Telemedicine has increased accessibility in the healthcare industry. Patients can access medical care wherever they are, and when they need it, they can access the Internet. Patients in rural areas are now able to get specialized medical care.
- Convenience: Patients can access medical care conveniently without traveling long distances to see a doctor. This is favourable to residents who live in rural areas and previously had to travel for long hours to see a doctor. Telemedicine has also eliminated the hustle of waiting long lines for a consultation.
- Reduced healthcare costs; telemedicine is very cost-effective. Patients in Kenya can book an appointment for just Ksh 700, while those in Nigeria can do it for as little as 1000 naira. Patients can recover at home, eliminating the need for lengthy hospital stays.
- Increased patient engagement and productivity among healthcare providers; telemedicine has enabled patients to play an active role in their health. Patients can access various special services on the same platform instead of going to different facilities for benefits. Telemedicine has also improved how medical practitioners relate to their patients by allowing them to monitor them closely.
- Better patient education through telemedicine can help patients understand and manage their conditions.
Disadvantages of Telemedicine
Telemedicine has various benefits, but it also has its shortcomings. Some include
- Limited Internet accessibility: many African countries still have limited Internet access, while some rural areas lack complete access. Reports indicate that 50% of Nigeria’s population cannot access the Internet. Lack of internet access means that locals cannot access telemedicine services.
- Limited physical examination; telemedicine relies heavily on physical observations between the doctor and the patient. Physical consultations help doctors come to a more definitive conclusion about the patient’s condition.
- Technical difficulties: Telemedicine relies heavily on technology for both parties to understand each other. Connection issues and glitches can cause disruptions in the communication between the patient and the doctors.
- Privacy and security concerns: telemedicine heavily relies on technology, which is at high risk of being hacked and patients’ confidential reports leaked to the Internet. The data can also be held for ransom by hackers.
- Regulatory and legal challenges: the practice of telemedicine exists under unclear laws that are subject to change at any time. Apps such as MyDawa make it easy for people to access medication online with a tap on the screen. One can access a wide range of medicines without a prescription. This can lead to the abuse of drugs and addiction.
Main photo: Ceibos, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons