Innovations in healthcare support practitioners and the broader community stakeholders to address and build new forms of resilience and preparedness.
Despite the fact that epidemics outbreaks place unequaled burdens on healthcare systems, and the fact that the current crisis is likely far from being over, the sector’s innovation capabilities must continue to rise to the challenges of the existing outbreak and the fallout from its spread.
However, the industry’s response has intensely revealed its resilience and ability to bring innovations to play in handling issues. While many industries are facing unprecedented disruptions, medicine and the healthcare sector have been uniquely affected, given the nature of COVID -19.
The innovative application of converging technologies such as mobile computing, mobile communications, and broadband internet to the management of epidemic outbreaks is building new forms of resilience and preparedness.
Although technology had been used to assist in the fight against epidemics in the past, the Ebola outbreak led to a step-change in the level of focus from the technology sector. This means that technology is likely to provide a significant impact on future outbreaks.
Nigeria has been confronted with numerous outbreaks since 2017, including yellow fever, monkeypox, Lassa fever, cholera, and cerebrospinal meningitis, and now COVID-19. In all cases, Nigeria responded to and contained these outbreaks.
While technology cannot stop the spread of an epidemic, it can educate, warn and empower those on the ground and those that need to be aware of the situation to significantly reduce the impact.
“One of the challenges that can potentially inhibit innovation on the African continent is the digital divide because innovation thrives in a knowledge-based economy where all the people have equal access to information in order to create a sustainable society,” Moredreck Chibi, regional adviser for health innovation at the World Health Organisation (WHO), Regional Office for Africa (AFRO), says.
Digital divide manifests in the form of lack of access to internet infrastructure, information and knowledge. This exacerbates inequity gaps and heavily compromises equal opportunities for economic empowerment.
At the 2020 Future of Health Conference organised by the Nigeria Health Watch and themed ‘Innovation: Improving Health and Scaling Up Healthcare Access,’ Chibi highlighted the need for African governments to prioritise bridging this divide and working on various aspects of the epidemic preparedness.
“Empirical evidence actually shows that the future of health in sub-Saharan Africa will be underpinned by the development and adoption of homegrown innovative solutions that will be adapted to the country’s specific needs,” Chibi said.
“We try to explore ways of effectively harnessing innovative solutions to address these ever-increasing health challenges, especially in Africa. This is informed by changes in social, economic dynamics,” Chibi explained.
These changes comprise also epidemiological changes, including prevalent non-communicable diseases. This makes innovative solutions for health on the African continent urgent.
It is projected that the future of healthcare in African countries will be affected if innovative ways are not deployed to improve health outcomes. Some of the health indicators in the African region have registered the lowest support despite global progress, for instance, in reducing deaths among mothers and children
Chibi added that Africa is at the forefront of harnessing and deploying technology to strengthen COVID-19 response.
The COVID-19 pandemic has galvanised more than 12.8 percent of 1000 new or modifications of existing technologies that have been developed worldwide in Africa to improve healthcare delivery; this would have not been possible otherwise.
“I truly believe the pandemic has provided additional impetus on the need to invest in innovation and to put in place, right policies and strategy frameworks in place to unleash, what we call African ingenuity and creativity,” Chibi asserted.
Governments and other concerned stakeholders should concentrate on promoting ICT skills and digital literacy in a non-discriminative manner to ensure equal opportunities for the young and future generations.
To measure the success of innovation, Chibi added that as the WHO continues to support the implementation of the original strategy, innovators, and other key actors in the innovation ecosystem, both definitely experienced some positive change that will create a helpful impact on health systems, as opposed to religion, which he said is Africa’s aspiration.
He, therefore, said that the agency defines the success of innovation as it pertains to the impact, the number of lives saved, the number of lives improved, and the extent to which the innovation can spread out in terms of scale, and whether it has been also adopted in a sustainable manner.
Also speaking on how innovation can help Nigeria develop digital operating surveillance and outbreak management, Lois Olajide, who leads the Surveillance Outbreak Response Management and Analysis System (SORMAS) deployed by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), said that in Nigeria some strategy is actually employed for disease surveillance.
He noted however that the core functions include identification and recording and reporting of cases, analyses of the data obtained, and investigation of suspected outbreaks.
Others include the preparation and implementation of an appropriate public health response real-time exchange of information, monitoring evaluation and providing feedback, in order to improve the surveillance system.
According to her, the Ebola outbreak in 2014 led to the development of a mobile application system that was used for tracking and monitoring suspected Ebola cases that are recorded today “because I have a claim that the existing disease surveillance and response systems are being adequate”.
She further stated that SORMAS deployed by the NCDC is Nigeria’s digital system for surveillance and outbreak data management. At FHC 2020, she explained that SORMAS is being used for rapid collection, reporting, and analysis of disease data in real-time for appropriate public health action.
“It has helped to generate data which is key to fighting disease outbreaks not just in Nigeria but across the world and the goal of SORMAS is to ensure that we completely do away with paper-based records, to improve our response to emerging disease outbreaks and maintain an effective response to the current #COVID19 pandemic,” she noted.
For example, one important piece of data that would not have been possible without the SORMAS’ analysis system is the fact that only 20 of percent LGAs in Nigeria were actually responsible for 70 percent of all COVID-19 cases. This kind of data helps prioritise response, understand disease trends as well as map out risk factors such as high health worker infection rates, which Olajide said led to targeted IPC training in affected communities.
Andrew Nerlinger, co-founder, Pandemic Tech, said that one of the key things in an ecosystem development is maturing a group or groups of investors in different key sectors, especially with health security, noting that this can create more and more investors who are comfortable and investing in health security-related technologies so it’s a very difficult thing.
“But it’s something that’s getting better now with COVID. This is an opportunity,” he said.
Vivianne Ihekweazu, managing director, Nigeria Health Watch, added that COVID-19 has highlighted more than anything, the fact that Nigeria needs to leapfrog some of the ways it is currently delivering health care and use technology to ultimately bridge the gap between health facilities. She noted however that what it shows is that there is still a lot to be done to improve healthcare in Nigeria.