Spotlight on the role of social media and healthcare in Africa

Dominque, a 10-month old baby, is born in the West African country of Senegal with four legs and two arms. Circumstances are dire and Dominique is in desperate need of surgery. A family in the USA hears about it through social media. A few months down the line, after successful operations and thousands of donations towards her surgery, she is on her way to recovery.

The story of Dominique is not unique, and should not be interpreted as the typical narrative of the Western world helping out ‘Africa’. Rather, it highlights the much underplayed importance of the part that social media plays in the healthcare and medical field. In fact, the tilt of quality medical health care and advice being available to only a select wealthy group is slowly shifting on the African continent due to the advent of social media, mobile technology and innovation.

Social media as an enabler for improved health care

A tweet, a reply on Facebook or a picture on Instagram holds such great weight in modern day society. The coupling with medical has proven to be quite powerful across Africa. It’s been used by medical professionals to give advice on social media platforms, and also diagnose patients to a certain degree. Campaigns are run through SMS and WhatsApp whenever it is flu season, or if it is time to take yellow-fever shots. Medical tips – for dealing with Malaria, for instance – are also featured.

Collaborative innovation between mobile technology and healthcare

Several African countries have taken the lead in using social media and mobile technology to make an impact on healthcare in the country. Below are a few recent examples:

  • The Cameroon Department of Health have partnered with Orange (a telecommunications services provider), the Crisis Text Line and Crowdsourcing platforms to create a mobile platform where users can report on environmental factors affecting their health, and health status. It acts in the same way as a typical social media platform, and can also be used via SMS.
  • Tanzania’s m-health gives medical help, advice and services via mobile. There is a particular focus on maternal and newborn health. Furthermore, mobile technology has enabled them to collaborate with the likes of University of Toronto to deploy this application across the country. Mobile devices with m-health are equipped with monitoring tools, push notifications, health surveys and a wealth of information.
  • Senegal, a country with a large portion of the population below the poverty line, has greatly benefited from mobile technology innovation in the medical field. JokkoSante is an app that was created by Adam Kane which looks to distribute medicine across Senegal. He argues that thousands of medicine in people’s cabinets go unused hence the app rewards individuals distributing their unused medicine. Each time they do so, people are rewarded with points which they can redeem to purchase new medicine- innovation at its best.
  • Social media has also helped medical and health workers in Kenya who were struggling with agreements with their respective bargaining units. Using social media, they started the hashtag #LipaKamaTender (which has been used across several social issues in Kenya) to voice their dissent and grievances. It put the spotlight on, and brought awareness to the struggles of medical workers in Kenya.

 The JokkoSante app aids medicine distribution across Senegal

Factors worth considering

As highlighted previously, penetration of mobile technology, internet and social media in Africa is challenging, but it is still growing. The slow development presents several hurdles to really leveraging tech and social in the medical field:

  • Scaling: not everyone has access to social media or a smartphone. It generally limits the impact. However, a big trend in Africa is the sharing of mobile phones (one phone is often used by six people). Therefore, holding back on initiatives due to lack of mobile penetration is not a valid excuse.
  • The rise of Fake News has spilled over to the rise of fake medical practitioners and advice on social media platforms. This can only be properly combatted with good infrastructure and reliable strategies.
  • The protection of personal information regarding an individual’s medical status is a topic that has also been in the news lately. Often sensitive information is leaked over into the public space of Facebook and Twitter.

Limitations breeds innovation

Limitations in certain areas is a struggle that has always existed, and brilliant innovation in Africa has often superseded them. The growth in mobile penetration and capabilities of mobile phones brings about the possibility of just-in-time health notifications. Wearable technologies are becoming cheaper thereby enabling a much more accurate dispensation of medical information.

These brilliant initiatives are often happening in pockets. It’s no hidden fact that Africa is plagued with several social and medical issues. Once there is collaboration between African leaders and innovators the impact will be far larger. Think about it- a hashtag has far greater traction with more people involved.