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WHO: Technology can accelerate universal healthcare in Africa
Every year, 11 million Africans fall into poverty due to high out-of-pocket payments for healthcare, technology could change that

A mother looks after her son at Kabgayi hospital south of the Rwandan capital Kigali where Zipline, a California-based robotics company, delivered their first blood to patients using a drone on October 13, 2016. REUTERS/James Akena

By Inna Lazareva | THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION

Integrating technology into Africa's healthcare systems is key to opening them up faster to the poorest and most vulnerable people, the World Health Organization's Africa director said.

Using more technology presents a "big opportunity" for rolling out universal health coverage in the region, Dr. Matshidiso Rebecca Moeti told the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of the first WHO Africa Health Forum this week in Rwanda.

Technology can pave the way to improvements in data management, training for health workers and making referrals, among other areas, she added.

The June 27-28 meeting in Kigali will focus on forging new partnerships between governments, U.N. agencies, civil society organisations and the private sector in Africa to deliver universal health coverage.

That means ensuring everyone can obtain the health services they need without suffering financial hardship to pay for them.

Every year, 11 million Africans fall into poverty due to high out-of-pocket payments for healthcare, a WHO report said last year.

Achieving universal health coverage - including access to essential health services, medicines and vaccines for all - is one of 17 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the world's governments in 2015 and intended to be met by 2030.

The WHO plans to team up with the International Telecommunication Union and African governments to support the large-scale adoption of "eHealth" services, it said.

These cover everything from telephone helplines and text message appointment reminders, to remote patient monitoring, electronic health registers, online learning for staff and promoting health messages through social media.

While most African countries have universal health coverage as a goal in their health strategies, progress in implementing these has been slow, according to the World Bank.

At present, the main challenge is financing, said Moeti.

"The benefit allocation for health in many of the African countries does not represent (the) $80 per capita that the WHO recommends for a basic package of healthcare services - although a few countries are getting there," she said.

Lack of skilled human resources is also "a very important problem" in some African countries, which suffer from a shortage of trained doctors, nurses and midwives, she added.

The Africa region accounts for approximately a quarter of the world's disease burden, yet has just 3 percent of its doctors, the WHO noted in 2015.

Moeti said the delivery of health services also needs to be more integrated to overcome silos, particularly with programmes tackling Africa's biggest health challenges such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and maternal mortality.

"Innovation needs to be around how to do smart integration, to convince the health sectors to drive change but also to be more efficient," she said.