Telemedicine in Sub – Saharan Africa, Opportunity Unexplored

Africa like any other continent has a rich diversity that highlights differences in economy, population and welfare, among other things. Economies such as South Africa and Nigeria have experienced impressive growth over the past decades while the likes of Zimbabwe and Somalia have been plagued by fiscal stagnation and trade isolation. The overall disparity that characterizes the region has resulted in most countries lagging behind in areas of health and technology. A case in point can be made for telemedicine in Sub – Saharan Africa.


Western countries such as the United States of America, Canada, Britain and the greater part of Europe have integrated telemedicine into their health sectors. The many demands of modern day life have resulted in the health industry evolving to accommodate patients’ needs. By incorporating high quality IT infrastructure with a skilled practitioner labour pool, superior medical care is made accessible to millions of patients. The marked growth in the telemedicine industry in the aforementioned countries is testament to the popularity of this method with patients. Benefits such as access across various platforms (e.g. Android, iOS and Windows), convenience and lower consultation costs have made telemedicine an obvious choice for numerous individuals.

The health situation in the opposite hemisphere unfortunately is not as progressive. According to UNICEF, 21 children [below the age of 5] die every minute, the highest rates being in Sub – Saharan Africaᶛ. On the contrary, there are only 1.7% of the world’s physicians practicing in the region according to a survey of Sub-Saharan African medical schoolsᶜ. The regrettable reality is that quality medical healthcare is largely inaccessible to most households in the region. A common trait across the expanse is the comparatively higher quality of medical care afforded by private practices and hospitals as opposed to public facilities. Bureaucracy, corruption and lack of adequate funding have progressively deteriorated state run clinics and hospitals in most Southern African countries. During 2000-2010 for instance, Zimbabwe had fewer than two doctors for every 10,000 people according to the World Health Organization (WHO)ᶝ.Telemedicine in Sub – Saharan Africa, though largely unexplored, provides an exciting solution to the problem of equitable access to quality healthcare.

The Rise Of IT Vs Telemedicine in Sub – Saharan Africa

Technological advancement has however, not been insular to the Northern Hemisphere. Digital innovations and the relentless search for consumer markets by IT manufactures has resulted in a steady proliferation of state – of – the art hardware and software across the continent. In June, 2014, there were 329 million unique smartphone subscribers in Southern Africa, equivalent to a penetration rate of 38%ᶞ.  The advent of cheap technologies and apps, particularly from the Asian bloc has seen a massive uptake of basic 21st century communication platforms such as instant messaging and social media. While these developments have had marked impact in such areas as showbiz, music and sport, the applications of technology in medicine, in the region, has been minimal at best. The majority of medical institutions still rely on dated, bulky machinery, a dwindling population of skilled practitioners and systems established during colonial eras.

Med-eSmart And The Future

Telemedicine, the provision of medical care from a distance, has made substantial strides in the northern hemisphere. Patients find themselves presented with numerous options of doctors and medical advice. The benefits of this model also extend to business and employers as people apply for less sick days and time off, for what would otherwise be minor and easily treatable conditions. It stands to reason that in Southern Africa, plagued by bureaucracy, systematic inefficiencies and outdated technologies. It is under this premise that Med-eSmart is established. Connect with the Med-eSmart Facebook page to become part of this exciting movement as we ensure “A Doctor For Every Child.”

ᶜ A survey of Sub-Saharan African medical schools, Chen et al, Human Resources For Health, 2012, 10:4
ᶛGSMA The Mobile Economy – Sub Saharan Africa 2014: