Clinicians treat patients, developers write code. For digital health solutions to achieve desired results, it is expected, usually required, for clinicians and developers to find a nexus. In a number of hubs churning out tech solutions in various parts of Africa however, health apps are developed without health professionals.
Slow progress in Africa
In June 2013, a hackathon tagged #Hack4Health was held in Lagos, Nigeria to commemorate that year’s edition of the annual World Blood Donor Day. Over the weekend, app developers attempted to come up with a solution that would aid and enhance blood donation practices in Nigeria. Popular Nigerian tech entrepreneur, OO Nwoye, was the coordinator of the project. According to him, the project was championed by dozens of Nigerian techies and health activists who volunteered their skills and time to make it work.
He said: “Access to safe blood in Nigeria needs urgent attention, and we are using web and mobile technology to facilitate this, while raising societal awareness of the benefits of donating.”
The hackaton resulted in the public unveiling of the LifeBank app. Less than two years later, the app is yet to be fully deployed and nothing much has changed in the way Nigerian blood banks source and handle blood units.
According to a Harvard Business Review publication, several new tech companies are getting into healthcare. This is quite understandable since one form of technology or the other could play crucial roles in the diagnosis, management and treatment of numerous diseases and health conditions. Large tech companies such as Facebook are reportedly venturing into healthcare, and Google last year released Google Fit, which is a healthcare tech solution that allows users to track activities and set goals. In Africa however, phenomenal results have not been achieved.
The disconnect between developers and clinicians
Adelayo Abiona is an app developer who is interested in developing health apps that would be deployed in several African countries. He admitted that developers and healthcare professionals in various parts of Africa have limited interaction when a product is being developed.
“Doctors in Africa are extremely busy and relatively inaccessible. I once reached out to some of them when I was developing a solution targeting maternal health. They were asking for huge sums of money and they really made things difficult. Fellow developers have similar experiences and we are just going ahead with our stuffs,” he told me.
According to him, as soon as their solutions are ready, they get in touch with the citizens who are urged to download and test the apps.
“Clinicians are not in the mix. We target the market and the media. If people like the product, journalists and publicists will help us to get more attention and before you know it, everyone will hear about the app. If you are very lucky, an international organization could hear about your app and may be interested in deploying it across the country or even beyond. This is the dream of all app developers in the health sector,” he said.
But it is not every good and potentially effective app that gets the attention of international organizations. Several of them, such as LifeBank, will remain on Google Play Store or on their developers’ personal computers.
“Maybe the clinicians believe the tech guys are planning to make them irrelevant and are choosing to be uncooperative and reluctant to help in app development and testing,” Shina Popoola, a tech blogger told me.
He noted that if app developers have adequate knowledge about healthcare, they could come up with cheap solutions that would greatly reduce the number of people that go to clinics.
“What happened in the banking sector could also happen in healthcare if developers have free hand. Even though it is possible, I don’t think it is plausible,” he said.
He noted that in Africa and elsewhere, healthcare providers will always be needed.
“Let me make something clear, no app can convincingly replace doctors. Digital health solutions will only make it much easier for them to do their work. I see lots of developers that are working on innovative solutions that could enhance healthcare in Africa, but as far as the medical side of the project is concerned, they don’t really know what they are doing. We need clinicians that are enthusiastic about digital health,” Popoola said.
A clinician on board
One such clinician is Dr. Fred Chidebere, who said he is involved in several app development projects targeting public health promotion in Africa.
“Getting involved in digital health projects open my eyes to the myriad of possibilities and opportunities. I don’t feel my job is threatened, in fact, it is creating more jobs for me,” he said.
He agreed that there is limited communication between app developers and clinicians but he said this could change.
“For health professionals, they need to start learning the language of developers because digital health solutions could be the closest we could ever get to the much elusive elixir. Developers too need to understand the immense pressures on the health professionals who deal with life or death situations on a daily basis. Some of them may see app solutions as joke, a number of us believe in the potential of digital health and we are always willing to get involved in new projects,” he said.
Paul Adepoju is an award-winning Nigeria-based freelance journalist. He is the managing editor of HealthNewsNG.com Africa’s leading health news platform, and is a correspondent for several international media organisations. He holds a master’s degree in cell biology and genetics, a diploma in legal studies, and is currently studying the dynamics of latent and active tuberculosis genetics for PhD.
The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.