Electronic Health Records: Challenges for sub-Saharan Africa

I knock at the door, walk in, greet the patient, and sit next to a desk top with access to the electronic medical chart. The patient had already been seen by a nurse, medications updated and vital signs taken.

I only have 20 minutes allocated to see the patient, review and discuss findings such as labs and imaging, chart my exams and summary of my assessment of the patient’s conditions and outline treatment plans. Often times medications are send electronically to the patient’s preferred pharmacy. The patient is given a print out of the visit summary. It is all digital.

This is the status of medical practice in America which is changing rapidly; more patients in less time. It is all possible, however , due to the availability of advanced electronic health records.

Come to sub-Saharan Africa, there are enormous challenges in adopting electronic health records (EHR) despite significant benefits of improving quality of care and patient safety, decrease health care cost and greater efficiency. EHR systems increase accuracy, reduce mistakes through allergy alerts, access to laboratory data, immunization history, improve organizational and societal outcomes. Data can also be used for health care research. If implemented, it will have tremendous impact in a region that has about a quarter of the world’s disease burden but 1/8th of the world’s population.

In an excellent review (Int J Health Sci (Qassim). 2017 Sep-Oct; 11(4): 59–64), the authors pointed out 4 main barriers to adoption of EHR in sub-Saharan Africa: high implementation and maintenance costs; limited computer skills; poor electricity supply and lack of constant internet connectivity, and lack of prioritization of EHR. They suggested financial support, using low-cost technologies and phased implementation as potential solutions.

In another systematic review (JMIR Med Inform. 2017 Oct-Dec; 5(4): e44.) that was done in collaboration with the University of Gondar Hospital in Ethiopia, given that the main barrier to adopting EHR software in low- and middle-income countries is the cost of its purchase and maintenance, the open-source approach as a good solution for these underserved areas was suggested which has been used in low income countries in Asia and South America.

About a year ago this time, I accompanied my cousin to see a physician. I was pleasantly surprised that everything from the initial checking in to the actual physician’s visit was paperless. He had a chest x ray first before called in to see the physician. A senior lung specialist greeted us, logged in his desktop, pulled up my cousin’s electronic chart, listened to his lungs, and looked at the CXR films which was loaded by the time we got there, compared it to the previous one and outlined treatment plans. Only this time it was in one of the new private hospitals in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Health information is an essential tool in modern health care delivery; the role of the private sector shouldn’t be underestimated in advancing the reach of electronic health records in sub-Saharan Africa.

About Tenayistilign

I am a physician trained at Jimma Institute of Health Sciences ( now Jimma University, in Jimma, Ethiopia) and Wayne State University ( Detroit, MI, USA). I teach and practice General Nephrology/Hypertension and Kidney Transplantation in the USA.
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