By Kemi Osukoya

June 1, 2013

When it comes to finding innovative solutions to health care issues in Africa, a unique set of challenges from misaligned funds to archaic technologies and inaccessibility to health clinics in truly life or death scenarios represent some of the high stakes. Yet the need to find innovative solutions that lower costs but increase quality and improve patients’ outcomes have never been greater.

So how do the health services providers, NGOs and private and public sectors working on the continent find innovative solutions to address these issues and provide better health services?

Some are turning to unlikely sources for answers and the results appear to be what the doctors recommend. In this case, the most exciting ideas are not the treatments coming from research labs. Instead, they’re business and technology applications that aim to cut costs by wringing out inefficiencies to boost services and transparency, turning health care services into a real, functioning marketplace.

As data and technology become increasingly important in the delivery and success of many ongoing projects on the continent, private and public sectors have began teaming up, eager to tap into myriad of ideas and opportunities presented by the various sectors on the continent to fix the health system.

Digital health services based on technology applications are emerging as key drivers in the transformation of the health care industry in Africa and the way health care services are delivered across the continent.

Kick starting this trend are ORTEC and North Star Alliance, supply chain software and management solutions firm and a health services NGO.

ORTEC was working with the United Nations World Food Program when it teamed up with North Star Alliance to help tackle one of Africa’s major health care services issues: Health care management–health care logistics.

To address this issue they focused on mobile populations, North Star Alliance’s main segment.

Mobile population in Africa plays a role as vectors in the spread of HIV, AIDS and other communicable diseases on the continent because of their exposure to highly vulnerable infectious diseases through interaction with high-risk populations such as sex workers and lower-risk-group community members and long term partners.

The very mobile behavior of these groups have led to higher prevalence of health issues along busy transport routes, which makes it difficult for them to receive health care.

Prior to its private and public partnership, North Star Alliance had already designed shipping containers to house roadside clinics that provide health services to drivers in their trade habitat along truck stops and borders, where informal sex habits often flourish.

After noticing the disparities between medical records and lack offs when patients visited the clinics for treatments, North Star approached ORTEC to help it design a technology that can help optimize patient’s medical records.

“Logistic is a main element of the supply chain. Humanitarian logistic involves taking the techniques and knowledge of supply chain optimization to the field of delivering aid and food,” said Lambert van der Bruggen, managing director of ORTEC consulting group, a subsidiary of ORTEC. “Prior to becoming involved with North Star Alliance, ORTEC was working on projects with the United Nations World Food Program to deliver aid and food. Because we specialize in supply chain optimization and one of North Star’s key populations is truck drivers, the partnership seemed like a natural fit.”

The two companies came up with an idea to design a system they named COMETS (Corridor Medical Transfer System) that help collects and safely stores patients’ medical records and make it accessible to medical personnel, doctors and nurses at clinics across Africa.

It was easy to make a case for such an electronic system, a health care system in which patients have medical records and history stored securely in the cloud in a digital format where they are always accessible and readily shareable among medical personnel. After all, public health experts and officials have long known that traditional brick-and-mortar medicine sometimes doesn’t apply to modern-day realities and situations.

By leveraging the same logistics tool and tracking software used in supply chain optimization, converting it into humanitarian logistics optimization to track truck drivers activities, important health trends and treatments, they are able to gain better insight into diseases patterns among truck drivers and the communities.

Digitized patient medical records are changing the way health care services are delivered across the continent and how infectious diseases among the most vulnerable populations, those living in rural communities on the continent, are monitored.

The previous methods of collecting data usually involved mobilizing health care workers and personnel to painstakingly go door to door to communities to interview and collect health information and reconstruct all the contacts to determine the origin of disease, which often tend to be fragmented when used collectively to determine health care services and funding.

By using a system such as the one designed by ORTEC and North Star Alliance and consolidating the data into a single record, there are fewer errors, less redundant paperwork, better coordination among medical providers and patients. These types of systems also help deliver quicker, safer, and higher-quality care instead of relying on medical histories from scribbled notes locked away in clinics, hospitals and labs.

“Data was without a doubt one of the most important elements of designing health intervention that would address the impact of communicable diseases on mobile populations like truck drivers and the communities with which they interact,” said van der Bruggen. “By coupling a robust data collection and storage network with a physical network of strategically located clinics, we’ve been able to ensure that mobile populations are able to access their medical records across borders.”

The impacts of the system on the communities have been significant. The COMETS system has cutbacks on medical treatments redundancies and costs and is being applied on a large scale by health services and clinics as a sustainable model across the continent.

The real sustainable impact is getting patients, in this case, mobile populations, to care and to be part of their health management. It puts the responsibility for making prudent health care choices firmly in the hands of patient. The old methods, which too often have fragmented health information, either erroneously provided by patients or recorded by personnel, can lead to erroneous health treatments decision making.

Beyond providing care for mobile population, NGOs such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are now using such data collected to determine the appropriate distribution of health care funding to clinics and hospitals on the continent.


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