EAC partner states called upon to harness digital technologies

TANZANIA: THE East African Community (EAC) partner states have been called upon to adopt digital technologies including telemedicine, health apps, wearable devices and artificial intelligence to improve healthcare delivery and disease management.

The Deputy Director for Data and Statistics at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI), Prof Wallace Bulimo, said recently that digital technologies offer innovative solutions to improve healthcare access, especially in remote or under-served areas.

He said that the adoption of digital technologies was changing disease patterns with a shift in the disease burden globally.

“Over the years, there has been a shift from communicable diseases to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) as leading causes of death. We have seen the emergence of novel infectious diseases, like Covid-19, highlighting the ongoing threat from infectious agents,” said Prof Bulimo.

“Statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) indicate that cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) caused 17.9 million deaths in 2019, that is, 32 per cent of all deaths worldwide.

Ageing populations, sedentary lives and bad diets have caused this trend. The Global Burden of Disease Study 2019 reports that CVDs cause 19 per cent of global deaths,” said the don.

He further said that in 2019, 63 million people aged 20-79 had diabetes globally, adding that the number would reach 700 million by 2045.

“Global cancer cases are growing, with 19.3 million in 2020. By 2040, 28.4 million new cases are expected. The Global Cancer Observatory (GCO) reported over 10 million cancer deaths in 2020. Rising death rates are caused by population expansion, ageing and carcinogen exposure,” he said.

Prof Bulimo was giving a keynote address titled “Harnessing Digital Technologies for Preparedness and Response to Communicable and Non-Communicable Diseases: Navigating the Cutting Edge” on Day 2 of the three-day 9th East African Health and Scientific Conference at the Kigali Convention in Kigali, Rwanda.

On communicable diseases, he said that TB remains a global health issue, adding that TB is one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide, with 10 million new cases in 2019.

“The spread of infectious pathogens has been facilitated by weak healthcare systems, low vaccination rates, population increase, urbanisation and climate change,” even as he warned that Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) might kill 10 million people and cost 100 trillion US dollars by 2050.

“The global impact of AMR includes human health, agriculture, food security and increased hospital stays, treatment expenditures and mortality. The WHO reported 770,085,713 cases and 6,956,173 fatalities as of 30 August 2023. Pandemic has stretched healthcare systems, affected economies and fostered global preparedness and response,” he said.

The data scientist said that to address the recurrence of infectious illnesses and battle AMR, a multidisciplinary approach is needed, combining mitigation and prevention strategies including strong healthcare systems, prevention and responsible antibiotic usage.

Prof Bulimo said that to better manage both communicable and non-communicable diseases there was a need for advanced solutions especially advanced diagnostic tools for early detection and monitoring.

“Personalised medicine is also critical because individualised treatment approaches are increasingly important to address the heterogeneity of diseases. Innovative prevention methods, including vaccines and lifestyle interventions, are also crucial to reducing disease prevalence,” said the scholar.

Prof Bulimo said that research and innovation was also a necessity as continued investment in medical research is essential to understand evolving diseases and develop effective interventions. There is also a need to leverage technology such as genomics, artificial intelligence and telemedicine to enhance disease management,” he added.

On using artificial intelligence to manage diseases, Prof Bulimo said that machine learning has transformed disease detection in various ways including improved image analysis, faster diagnosis, early detection and consistency.

Prof Bulimo proposed that patients with chronic diseases like diabetes should be provided with wearable devices that monitor their vital signs and glucose levels, adding that this would allow data to be transmitted to healthcare providers for remote monitoring.

“Wearable devices empower patients to actively manage their health while providing healthcare providers with real-time data for better decision-making. Smartwatches and fitness trackers monitor heart rate, blood pressure and activity levels,” he said.

He cited some of the challenges in implementing digital technologies in healthcare as interoperability among computer systems and software, cyber-security threats, data privacy and consent and regulatory compliance.

On the challenges posed by interoperability – which is the lack of seamless communication between different systems – Prof Bulimo vouched for the implementation of standardised data formats and communication protocols to ensure seamless interoperability between different healthcare systems.

He said that to mitigate cybersecurity threats, EAC Partner States should invest in robust cybersecurity measures, including regular security audits, employee training and data encryption to protect patient data from breaches.

“On data privacy and security, there is a need to develop clear and transparent consent mechanisms, allowing patients to control how their data is used and shared. Implement strict data anonymisation techniques to protect patient identities,” said Prof Bulimo.

“To tackle challenges posed by regulatory compliance, there is a need to stay informed about evolving data protection and healthcare regulations and invest in compliance management systems. There is need to regularly update policies and procedures to align with changing requirements.”

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