Health Information Exchange Featured Article

December 19, 2011

Kenya Hopes Its Abundance of Mobile Phones Will Bring Greater Health to the Nation

Mobile health platforms are not just for countries like Canada and the U.S. anymore. They’re quickly emerging in Kenya, where, as David Talbot writes, “one startup's newly launched mobile health platform is attracting nearly 1,000 downloads daily.”

Talbot adds that the dominant telecom, Safaricom, has put together a partnership with Shimba Technologies that will give its 18 million subscribers access to doctors through a new app, MedAfrica.

Kenya is, and has been for some time, well ahead of other countries in the world when it comes to digital data. A World Bank official told Talbot that 50 percent of all Kenyan banking is already done on mobile phones, “suggesting that the population is ready to go mobile with health care, too,” Talbot writes.

Now this new app, MedAfrica — available for smart phones and less powerful “feature” phones— provides medical and health information to mobile phone users, according to a story by Dennis Mbuvi at MedAfrica lists the medical professionals nearest users. Users can then call the doctors from the application to book appointments. Users can also “self- diagnose their symptoms to have an idea of what may be causing a medical condition and how to deal with it,” Mbuvi writes. The app also includes information on first aid procedures, drug information and medical news.

The product is the brainchild of Shimba Technologies, a Nairobi-based company founded by two locally educated entrepreneurs, Stephen Kyalo and Keziah Mumo, with $100,000 in seed money from a European venture capitalist fund.

"In terms of providing basic services through mobile phones on the continent, Kenya is in the lead in many ways, and showing the way," says Elizabeth Ashbourne, director of global health information forums at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. "Local applications in the health space are absolutely frontier activities."

And mobile healthcare couldn’t have come at a better time to this country. Talbot writes that many Kenyans have serious health problems. The sad fact, according to the World Health Organization, is that more than 30 percent of children under age five are not growing as they should. Add to that the fact that 75 percent of all malaria cases occur in children and seven percent of those children may become infected with celebral malaria (which causes convulsions and comas and results in severe neurological damage), and you can see how a mobile health platform could greatly improve conditions and save lives.

Talbot writes that there are only 7,000 doctors for a nation of 40 million people. Yet, Kenya has an astounding 25 million mobile phone subscribers (Africa has more than 600 million of them, he notes). The hope is to bring better health to this nation through its abundance of cell phones.

Deborah DiSesa Hirsch is an award-winning health and technology writer who has worked for newspapers, magazines and IBM in her 20-year career. To read more of her articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves