Using Gabon’s Digital Network to Improve Healthcare

Gabon, on Africa’s west coast, is home to a fairly small population of 1.6 million people. But the country has grand digital dreams. It aims to be one of the first countries in Africa to move its health care system online.  Though Gabon is one of sub-Saharan Africa’s few upper income countries, the falling price of oil is pressuring the government to diversify. According to the World Bank’s 2016 World Development Report, a push toward a more digitized economy will help share prosperity.

Gabon already boasts a fairly sophisticated information and communications technology base. It is a regional leader in e-government development and a leader in broadband. Now, with support from the World Bank, the country is trying to transform public health services. Putting health services online, experts say, will both improve basic care and improve efficiency. And it will create jobs and promote innovation, by opening new ways of creating and managing people’s health care needs.

“The idea is make the system more efficient,” explains Michel Rogy, a policy advisor on information and communications technology at the World Bank. “So if we can put everything from prescriptions to health histories in digital form, it is easier to process and to share. And we can also use technology to pinpoint potential health crises, and mobilize faster, like if there’s an outbreak in a rural area.”

The eGabon project consists of two major components:

  • The first is to strengthen the National Health Information System, improving access and making spending more efficient while improving the quality of care. This involves boosting ICT skills for healthcare workers, with a focus on training women.
  • The second addresses the broader economy, by promoting the development of content, apps and services related to putting health information online. The creation of a digital incubator in Libreville (the capital), and smaller- scale incubators in Port-Gentil (the economic capital) and Franceville (where the International Center for Medical Research— CIRMF– is located) would serve as spurs for the development of a digital innovation ecosystem. The goal is to increase the percentage of start-ups, with a focus on women-owned companies, and to create local digital content, applications and services, including organizing hackathons and business plan competitions.

Employees and patients of the National Health System and those who work in Gabon’s digital economy would benefit most from this project. The government of Gabon has focused on health care to showcase the potential for growth in e-services and to, quite simply, improve the current system. Gabon has not met its Millennium Development Goals in health and struggles to get value for money in its operations.

Easier access to health services, at lower costs, and the widespread availability over mobile phones (including smartphones) of health apps should impact almost everyone, and experts argue that the changes will have a major impact on the development of the digital economy in the country.  Economists say that investments and interest in e-health will strengthen the local information and communications sector in Gabon, which should generate new ideas and businesses, attract foreign investment and create jobs. One way the focus on internet technologies would improve the job climate is via “spillover” into other industries that rely on communications technology, like mass media, advertising, creative businesses and banking.

Next steps for Gabon’s push toward online health care range from better broadband networks to a better-trained workforce, and the development of the system itself.  Government intervention is crucial to address the follow issues:

  • A substantial part of the country and some government institutions outside of the big cities are without reliable connectivity
  • Investors are wary, given the scattered population and its low disposable income
  • The country’s workforce does not have the entrepreneurial or internet and communications skills it needs
  • And it needs the appropriate legislative, financial, and idea/data exchange frameworks that have encouraged the digital economies in Ghana, Kenya, Morocco and Senegal.

The investments in online health care should have multiple benefits for the average resident, says Dominic Haazen, including: “better health care, fewer duplicate diagnostic tests, less unnecessary hospitalization and better diagnosis and treatment.”  And it could also be a boost for the overall economy, as Michel Rogy explains, “by building on the country’s existing booming mobile broadband technology, the hope is to bring benefits beyond health care and provide a showcase for other countries in the sub-Saharan Africa.”

Source: World Bank

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