Originally published August 1, 2016.
Cutting edge technology in our world has led to self-driving cars and phones that can be unlocked with our fingerprints. What about technology in the context of healthcare? eHealth Africa has brought cutting edge technological solutions to African communities susceptible to illness. In their 7 years of existence, they have streamlined polio immunisation in Nigeria, combatted the Ebola outbreak, and provided over 800 jobs across four African countries.
We recently had a conversation with Geerd-Dietger Hoffman, the CTO of eHealth Africa, and learned about their successes so far, what people can do to help and what’s next for the innovative healthcare technology company.
What was the motivation for starting eHealth Africa?
eHealth Africa (eHA) was founded in 2009 by Evelyn Castle and Adam Thompson. At this time, they both looked back at several years of experience leading large-scale public health and IT projects, some of which were based in West Africa. They believed that Northern Nigeria’s underdeveloped public health infrastructure could make a substantial leap if supported by innovative data-driven technology solutions that would allow for a digitisation of health data as well reliable and nearly real-time data transmission and reporting.
eHealth Africa was founded in 2009. What has been your social impact to date?
We helped Nigeria’s government streamline and strengthen the polio immunisation by providing data to the vaccinators for reaching their targets as well as reporting tools. Thus, Nigeria is close to being declared polio-free by the WHO, making the whole of Africa officially polio-free. Further, eHA played a crucial role in the Ebola outbreak response by rapidly building emergency operations centers that coordinated cases-reporting and follow-ups. As one of the results, Ebola outbreak in Lagos could be limited to 20 cases only. We have further established and operated reliable health emergency hotlines in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Additionally, we have been able to provide over 800 meaningful jobs across our four countries of operation (Nigeria, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone), a region with very high levels of unemployment.
One of your areas of expertise is in the rapid and tailored development of emergency management systems for major health outbreaks. What does this mean on the individual scale?
At the start of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, in less than two months, eHA not only managed to build a response team of over 300 people across Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, but also to implement an $18 million vaccine trial program in Sierra Leone. We further built country-tailored Emergency Operations Centers in all four countries that were hit by Ebola, providing logistics (including electricity and internet), data systems support (including call centers, data collection and analysis tools) and management support (including coordination activities, finance, planning, training).
What are some notable differences you've seen among the people within the communities you serve?
Since we started our first projects in West Africa seven years ago, many things have changed for the people affected by our work. Health camps we organised helped over 1.6 million children and over 2.2 million adults receive live-saving medical help. Additionally, we initiated awareness campaigns and millions of people from underserved communities are now not only able to lead healthier lives, but they have regained trust in the public healthcare systems of their home countries.
Furthermore, medication and vaccine availability has increased substantially due to our tools that enable reliable stock-counts in remote places. The tracking of delivered health commodities and nearly real-time reporting to governmental officials allows for rapid reaction rates. One of the biggest successes is the increase in large-scale polio immunisations in Northern Nigeria, with the last case having occurred in 2014.
Your primary targets are countries in West Africa. Do you have plans to expand your services to other African nations in the future?
I think that given the extensive knowledge we have gained, a lot of other African countries could benefit from our tools and processes. Currently, we want to focus on the countries we are already active in and continue building sustainable systems. However, if there is an opportunity to bring our knowledge and experience to other countries, we would be happy to do this, provided that our work in the countries we are currently operating in doesn’t suffer disadvantages from such an expansion.
What can the general public do to help in the mission to provide better, accessible health services for vulnerable communities?
A very valid question. When it comes to IT professionals, I believe that contributing to open source projects that provide free digital health solutions to developing countries would help the health systems a lot. I also think all of us in the developed world should be aware of how lucky we are being able to benefit from social welfare including free healthcare at any time. Having said that, we should take this into account before condemning less lucky people for coming here in pursuit of better lives.
What advice do you have for those looking to make an impact in the field of public health?
There are so many things to do in this field that we shouldn’t worry about not having anything to do in the near future. If you want to help, don’t be afraid to start something new. Just do it since the chances you are going to succeed are very high. Also, don’t be afraid of going to Africa in order to help people in need.
What's next for eHealth Africa?
We want to make our successful projects even more effective and increase the number of people they are reaching. In order to do this, we are seeking to increase the team, especially in our West African offices. We would also like to start developing our tools so that they can also be used by other countries.
What makes you a changer?
Changer is a big word. I think I’m quite good at starting new things at a rapid pace and not afraid of going to hard, unknown places wherever help is needed. But actually, many more people could do this if they wouldn’t be afraid of trying.