TELEMEDICINE

Pandemic a boon for digital health services

TeleAfya App has seen usage jump by more than 100 per cent

In Summary

• Number of patients seeking treatment for malaria has decreased by two thirds 

• Without innovations such as telemedicine, some hospitals will close down due to the inability to fund operational costs, expert says

TeleAfya App facilitates connection between a patient and medical care provider who are in close proximity to each other
TeleAfya App facilitates connection between a patient and medical care provider who are in close proximity to each other
Image: COURTESY

Six months into the Covid-19 pandemic in Kenya, close to 20,000 Kenyans have missed hospital visits for surgeries, according to the Ministry of Health. 

Thousands more shunned health facilities for treatment of other diseases. 

Health CAS Rashid Aman says malaria is the most affected. He says the number of patients seeking treatment for malaria has decreased by two thirds compared to a similar period last year. 

 
 

In 2017, three years before Covid-19, Vincent Chepkwony co-founded TeleAfya, an app that connects patients to doctors for medical assistance.

He says downloads have spiked by more than 100 per cent during the epidemic compared to before.

Using text, video calling or messaging, patients with smartphones can request for medical care givers remotely, while patients without smartphones can visit local TeleAfya Dispatch Centres, who will match them with medical professionals available, he says.

Vincent Chepkwony co-founded the TeleAfys health app in 2017
Vincent Chepkwony co-founded the TeleAfys health app in 2017
Image: FILE

“Now more than ever, we need to bridge the gap between healthcare access and delivery by connecting local medical professionals in each county with local patients, especially during this Covid-19 pandemic,” Chepkwony says.

“Through the TeleAfya App, we hope to build a network of medical care givers and patients to solve the health care crisis in Kenya.”

Medical professionals register on the app to offer their services in their respective counties, while patients with smartphones request for said services by logging onto the app.

In June, at least 200 providers and more than 500 patients were actively on the platform.

 
 
 

Chepkwony says TeleAfya’s mission is to make healthcare accessible, especially to disadvantaged communities.

“Through our disruptive technology platform, we make it possible for people with limited mobility, such as new parents, time-strapped professionals and the elderly, to still receive the excellent medical help they deserve,” he says.

 

In the case of patients without smartphones, they are already partnering with existing shops, schools, pharmacies and churches to act as dispatch centres.

The centres facilitate care between patients with no Internet connectivity or smartphones but have a regular phone, while simultaneously solving the congestion problem in hospitals and localising routine care that can be handled by certified medical professionals.

App co-founder and marketing director Dorothy Ogega says TeleAfya is going to foster easy communication with people in mashinani. 

“Just like M-Pesa, TeleAfya will be that account that has everything about your health. As long as you have your phone, your health is in your hands, literally,” she says.

Ogega says the app facilitates connection between a patient and medical care provider who are in close proximity to each other.

TeleAfya co-founder Dorothy Ogega
TeleAfya co-founder Dorothy Ogega
Image: COURTESY
As long as you have your phone, your health is in your hands, literally
TeleAfya co-founder Dorothy Ogega

A patient books on the platform, and depending on the workload of the caregiver, requests get accepted or rejected, which the patient monitors on the system and is able to request for an alternative medical care provider.

When the healthcare provider accepts the request, TeleAfya hands over control to them, enabling the caregiver to consult with the patient through text, call or video.

The app has also been on-boarding the Pandemic Integrated System for tracking Covid-19 suspects and Contact Tracing System. The system brings confidence to the community and workplaces by establishing a return-to-work testing criteria for healthcare workers as well as private and public employees.

The app is currently available for download on Google Playstore for Android users, while iPhone compatibility is currently in testing phase.

The consequences of not receiving medical attention on time can be dire. A lack of treatment for cancer, HIV, diabetes, HBP and heart conditions within certain timeframes can result in disease progression, deterioration of health and possibly death.

Dancun Njue, a development consulting expert with Finnish Consulting Group in Nairobi, says without operational innovations such as telemedicine, some hospitals will also close down due to the inability to fund operational costs.

"Actions are needed that will catalyse innovative service delivery," he says in a blog post published by the London School of Economics. 

"This ensures those who need urgent medical care and attention continue to do so even without physically visiting health facilities, at least until a Covid-19 management or treatment regimen is established."

He says part of the reason fewer Kenyans are visiting health facilities include fear of being infected by the coronavirus in hospitals.

There are also economic factors because many now-jobless people have had their contributions to the National Health Insurance Fund halted.

"Some people have been adamant not to go to hospitals, thinking they might inadvertently be declared Covid-19 positive, particularly when they display similar symptoms," he says.

"Given the much-publicised cost of treatment, of about Sh2,000 a day for at least 14 days, many people in the county have chosen to stay away from health centres."

The government-imposed curfew has also made it difficult for patients to visit hospitals.