The Potentials of Wearable Devices for Tackling Healthcare Challenges in Africa
My first experience with any wearable device was with a cheaply-made clip-on pedometer. All that did was track my steps the few times I remembered to clip it on my body. To say it was a nuisance will be an understatement.
Fast forward a few years later, I was able to afford my first Fitbit — the Flex — whose technology was groundbreaking for me. This device promised not only steps, but my heartbeat, water intake, calories burned, and even the number of restful sleep hours I had! Not even the cost (~$100) was a deterrent to me; I gave my money to the seller willingly. Unlike the old pedometer I had, my Fitbit was waterproof and had the convenience of being worn all the time.
Even better, the seamless technology it came with meant I could sync my data to my phone, get weekly updates on my progress, and compete with my friends on weekly challenges. Indeed, these are ‘basic’ function compared to what some other wearable devices can do. The global market for these devices is growing and expected to rise to around 52 billion U.S. dollars in 2022.
Earlier this year, Apple added a new feature to their watch, making them the first company to accomplish such a feat. While only available in the US, the latest feature included a mobile electrocardiogram (ECG), which will notify users of heart conditions such as stroke or heart failure, in the event of irregular heartbeats. The feature also comes with the ability to call emergency services if the users fall and are unresponsive after 60 seconds.
However, given that most Apple watch wearers tend to be younger, health experts are worried about the potential false positives which might lead to unnecessary hospital visits and overutilization of already scarce resources. While these concerns are valid, it’s hard not to make a good case for the utility of these devices in helping the users live healthier lives. And in the coming years, I expect an influx of more wearable tech with differentiating factors that can enrich the user’s experience.
Nothing quite draws us to such an imminent future than the rumors circulating around the tech world that Verily — the health division of Google — is developing innovative footwear embedded with weight sensors. These shoes can allegedly notify the user of sudden weight gain and loss. Already, Google’s parent company, Alphabet has released prototypes of the “lace-age” shoes which are targeted towards the elderly as they can detect and record falls.
The usefulness of some of these devices in monitoring health status has increased their use in telemedicine. In these settings, real-time data from the devices can be appended to patients’ electronic health records, hence causing a paradigm shift in making medicine more preventive than reactive. While users have widely adopted wearable devices, studies have reported that several doctors are yet to embrace their accuracy and utility in health monitoring fully. Other concerns include data privacy and ethical issues.
Wearable devices can also be used to solve some of the healthcare challenges experienced in developing countries in Africa, which range from a high prevalence of communicable diseases, fragmented healthcare infrastructure, to a limited number of healthcare workers. For example, Nigeria does not meet the WHO standard of one doctor for every 600 persons.
A report released in 2017 from a survey conducted by NOI Polls, in collaboration with Nigeria Health Watch, revealed that Nigeria has about 75,000 doctors registered with the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria (MDCN), with only about 35,000 within the nation’s shores. This translates to having less than 30% of registered physicians practicing within Nigerian and more than 45% emigrating to advanced countries as a result of the push and pull factors reminiscent of brain drain.
Since smartphone penetration has spiked in recent years in Africa, low-cost innovative technology can be leveraged to help reduce the impact of the waning skilled labor and reach underserved communities who have little-to-no healthcare access.
For example, by the adoption of mobile health technology via digital monitoring of patients, Kenya was able to increase the compliance of antiretroviral medication by 11%. In Mali, maternal and perinatal mortality rates were reduced by 30% via the use of mobile apps that delivered timely pregnancy and birth information to new mothers. These examples show the wide applicability of such applications.
Another use of wearable devices could extend to their integration into electronic health records (EHRs) such as Meditech. Linking real-time patient-driven data to clinical systems can provide a holistic view of medical and surgical histories, which can support early detection, diagnosis, and primary prevention of diseases. It would be interesting to see how wearable devices can be adapted to being more than just another accessory.
African health tech entrepreneurs and designers can play a huge role in the adoption of these technologies in solving our healthcare problems. The adoption of such technologies could include additional features that measure what really matters to the potential end-users, with consideration for unique challenges such as low government health spending, low literacy levels, language preferences, cultural differences, and fragmented healthcare systems.