mHealth in South Africa — opportunities and challenges

"Affordability will be an issue" says SA's deputy comms minister Obed Bapeda. Image Credit: SA Parliament

This afternoon I attended a media roundtable with South Africa’s deputy communications minister Obed Bapela and a bunch of industry bods. Vodacom (a subsidiary of Vodafone) was there, as was MTN and Cell C, and Sanlam, a South African financial services provider and health insurer.

We were there to discuss a report produced by the GSM Association into the opportunities for mHealth in South Africa. The report, which can be found here (requires free registration to access it), points out that healthcare in South Africa is big business — private health expenditure is 21 times the combined revenues of all South African mobile operators. This should whet the appetites of the operators, it was thought.

Of course, the majority of this expenditure is from people who have money — 14 per cent of South Africans have access to 57 per cent of the country’s health expenditure. The question, then, is how to extend mHealth services to the poorest.

South Africa is meant to be migrating to a National Health Insurance system next year. But it’s not clear where mHealth will fit into this vision. Bapela said that the country was publishing an eHealth strategy later this financial year, or early next (2012/13). The funding side is not yet resolved. “Affordability is going to be an issue,” the deputy minister said.

However, several of the private sector delegates said that mHealth could actually save the government money, and should not be seen as an ‘additional cost’. For instance, it could cut paper and data-entry costs, and cut travel costs for both doctors and patients.

Several issues remain to be resolved. Who will be liable if an mHealth treatment goes wrong? The mobile companies won’t want to accept the liability. So will it be the doctors, the content writers, or the health ministry? South Africa is tussling with the regulatory and policy challenges that are holding mHealth back in the country. I’m sure the same is true for many other developing countries.


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