- The Nigerian government unveiled its first telemedicine platform, NigComHealth, to increase access to healthcare in the country in May 2023.
- The Nigeria Communications Satellite Ltd (NIGCOMSAT) partnered with a Canadian healthtech company, Ethnomet, and Sawtrax, a tech implementation company, to launch the platform.
- When governments or organisations partner with international companies to carry out projects, they frequently consider several factors, including expertise and the potential impact on the local healthcare system.
On May 15, 2023, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami — represented by his Chief of Staff, Sahalu Junaid — unveiled NigComHealth, a telemedicine platform.
Nigeria Communications Satellite Ltd (NIGCOMSAT) partnered with Ethnomet, a Canadian healthtech company, and Sawtrax, a tech implementation company, to launch the platform.
NigComHealth will allow Nigerians to book appointments with qualified and specialised doctors from anywhere in Nigeria.
What is NigComHealth?
NigComHealth is Nigeria’s first telehealth service that will enable citizens to schedule appointments, consult with doctors and other healthcare professionals, and receive medical advice or recommendations from any location.
Who can use NigComHealth?
NigComHealth was designed for all hospitals in the country and will allow them to integrate their healthcare professionals and provide digital health services to Nigerians.
The government also mentioned the platform would provide digital health services to the 1.7 million public sector workers and their families across Nigeria.
Is this the first government-owned telemedicine initiative in Africa?
This is not the first time an African country has launched a telemedicine service.
South Africa pioneered telemedicine adoption in late 1999 when the National Department of Health launched the National Telemedicine System (NTS) in 28 locations across six of the country's nine provinces.
Another initiative is the Ghana Telemedicine Network (GTN), which began as a pilot project in the Amansie West District of the Ashanti Region in 2011. Based on the pilot’s success, the Ghana Health Service rolled it out across the country in 2016.
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In 2015, Kenya's Ministry of Health partnered with Germany's Merck Group to launch the first phase of a national telemedicine initiative, improving access to better healthcare for the rural poor and marginalised.
Additionally, in 2022, Kenya intended to implement a grant telemedicine programme — setting aside KSh 600 million (over $4m) — to increase access to healthcare, particularly in isolated and underserved areas.
Although the pilot for the programme was run at the Isiolo and Kenyatta National Hospitals, the government has not yet launched it.
Why partner with Ethnomet and Sawtrax?
When governments or organisations partner with foreign firms to carry out projects, they frequently consider several variables, such as expertise, technological prowess, cost-effectiveness, and the potential impact on the local healthcare system.
Even though there are benefits of working with local companies, including promoting local knowledge and businesses, international partnerships still occur.
Governments and organisations frequently form international alliances to access global resources, knowledge, and innovation. These collaborations can help with capacity building, knowledge transfer, and project alignment with international standards and practices.
For instance, as part of the government's plan for universal healthcare, Kenya announced its partnership with Univercells, a Belgian company, to build a biotechnology centre in March 2023.
So, the Nigerian government can use these foreign companies’ specialised expertise to design and implement telemedicine platforms or related healthcare technologies to implement NigComHealth.
For example, Ethnomet, a Canadian company, claims to have launched Ethnomet Mobile Health, a telemedicine platform. In March 2023, it started offering healthcare services to clients, beginning with Africans. After installing the app, they can link wearables and mobile health apps to the platform.
Sawtrax, on the other hand, focuses on innovative technological solutions that address global issues. It provides IT services, including design, management, data security, and infrastructure planning.
Through this partnership, the government can obtain access to the hardware, software, and cutting-edge technologies required for the telemedicine platform, allowing the Nigerian government to benefit from innovative advancements and ensure the platform's effectiveness and efficiency.
Why does NigComHealth matter?
One study reveals that the Nigerian healthcare system is underdeveloped and faces many challenges, especially at the local government level. There are also no effective surveillance systems to track the spread of infectious diseases, bioterrorism, and chemical toxicity, among others.
A report shows that 97% of Nigerians do not have access to health insurance of any kind, making health care difficult to obtain.
So, Junaid claims the platform will support a more effective healthcare system accessible to all Nigerians.
NigComHealth will also improve healthcare professionals' ability to deliver quality services by utilising technology to reach patients in remote locations.
The Nigerian government stressed that NigComHealth would prevent medical tourism, which occurs when Nigerians with means travel abroad for better medical care.
Can NigComHealth prevent medical tourism?
Although the government says that NigComHealth can stop medical tourism, it's crucial to remember that most people travel abroad for medical care because they expect to receive better care.
NigComHealth's goal to stop medical tourism will only succeed if there are robust healthcare infrastructures, including adequately staffed hospitals, state-of-the-art medical equipment, and a sufficient supply of qualified healthcare workers.
Why is a satellite company launching a telehealth platform?
You must have been as shocked as I was to learn that the Nigerian Communications Satellite Ltd. (NIGCOMSAT) is championing a telemedicine platform in Nigeria.
While NIGCOMSAT is a Nigerian company that owns and manages the Nigerian Communications Satellite systems, it also provides several services, such as broadcasting, broadband, enterprise, and government solutions.
For instance, in West, Central, and South East Africa, Europe, and Asia, the NigComSat-1R system is designed to offer domestic and international satellite services via a two-way satellite communications service.
Consequently, one can assume that NIGCOMSAT is launching NigComHealth because it claims to have a fleet of satellites that provides high-speed broadband Internet access to Nigeria.
Also, on June 7, 2023, NIGCOMSAT partnered with a satellite communications company, YahClick — a subsidiary of Yahsat, operators of Mubadala communications satellite of the United Arab Emirates — to increase broadband adoption in Africa.
Telemedicine platforms require reliable communication networks for remote consultations, data transmission, and real-time monitoring. Even in remote or underserved areas where traditional Internet infrastructure may be limited, existing satellite infrastructure can help improve connectivity.
It's no news that Nigeria's 20-year-old aspirations for space still look like a pipe dream. In this case, NigeriaSat-1 and NigeriaSat-X are two of the country’s satellites still functioning under “grace.”
The concluding part of this article will delve deeper into Nigeria's first telemedicine platform, including how it will work, whether it will reduce doctor emigration and the opportunities and threats it might present to existing telemedicine startups in the country.