Whenever Zenah Chesire falls sick, she travels to Eldama Ravine Sub County Referral Hospital, located 43 kilometres from her home village in Radat, Baringo County.
She has to pay Sh400 for fare and once she gets to the hospital she has to wait in the queue as patients who came before her get attended to.When her time comes, usually after 6 hours of waiting, she has to pay consultation fees.
The physician diagnoses her illness and gives her a prescription, directing her to a particular chemist where she should buy medicine, often at an inflated price.
She gets back to her home at around 6pm, still ailing and with nobody to call for follow -up consultation on how to control the malady.But when Telkom Kenya in partnership with Google launched the 4G Loon internet project right at her village earlier this month, she was among hundreds of jubilant residents, since she has always heard of telemedicine but the hope of ever enjoying the affordable service never materialized
.”The 3G internet speed we had in this county was too slow to enable video conferencing. Even a simple Zoom video call could not go through. But after testing the new balloon internet network, even heavy video streaming is possible,” the tech savvy mother of two told Afcacia.
Telemedicine players in the country were equally upbeat, expressing optimism that the new internet connections could bolster efforts to achieving universal healthcare though telemedicine.
“We are thrilled with this development. This takes us closer to universal access to medicine through telehealth. We are excited about the prospects to connect with patients in the rural areas that have difficulty getting a video call connection,” says Arif Amlani, the chief executive at Sasa Doctor, a local e-health platform.
Mr Tony Wood, the managing director of local medicine e-commerce platform My Dawa, says the rural 4G internet access project will be a great bust for the previously underserved and unserved areas that have always been left out even as Safaricom talks of launching 5G internet, an effort that could further widen the digital divide.
“I believe that telemedicine and access to genuine and affordable medication from My Dawa will be a route to bring these communities health services that they have previously missed out on,” he says.
He explains that his firm will be exploring partnerships to allow medication to be provided quickly and also ensure that they are genuine and safe, as “it is these communities that are often most at risk of substandard or falsified medication.
“Most e-health platforms charge a consultation fee of between Sh450 and Sh1000, which takes care of diagnosis and prescription, while traditional health centres charge at least Sh5,000. Telemedicine eliminates the need for the sick to move out of their beds, as treatment can be done online and affordable medication delivered to their doorsteps after purchasing online. This cuts many costs.”
Dr Samier Muravvej, chief executive of Neotech Kenya, which owns the Livia Dawa App, says though faster and stable internet could transform the health sector in remote zones, there is still one challenge that rural dwellers, who make up to 70 percent of Kenya’s population, grapple with.
“For a robust telemedicine ecosystem, patients must own quality smartphones for clear live doctor to patient interaction. This is a hurdle because the devices are too costly for them,” he remarks.
To lower the cost, through the market forces of demand and supply, he opines that once the 4G balloon internet is available in every county, it could trigger smartphones manufacturers to compete for the remote market, bringing down the cost to affordable prices, and boost smartphone uptake.
Francis Osiemo, a clinician and the chief operating officer at Sasa Doctor says that even though the project has laid the ground for a better uptake of telemedicine, there is still a gap in the use of the telehealth services.
“There are a lot of myths that are surrounding telemedicine, and this is present all over Kenya. This is due to the lack of sensitization that can easily transform the mindset of people,” he notes.T
he virtual medical consultation sector, Mr Osiemo projetcs, will grow above the traditional hospital visits during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, but it may still take some time since there is a section of medical practitioners and patients who still do not understand the technology.
“We expect that community organizations will come together to seek solutions that will help their communities. People should take advantage of the 4G network of internet. If they fully utilize telemedicine, then we will have greater potential in controlling diseases in rural areas.”
There are now 35 internet balloons flying 18 kilometres above the ground, beaming internet to peoples’ mobile phones living in a 50,000 square kilometre region.Currently, the project is benefitting residents of Kisumu, Kisii, Kakamega, Uasin Gishu, Bomet, Narok, Nakuru and Baringo counties where poor internet access has for long curtailed access to online medical information, with a long-term plan to take internet to every village in Kenya.
Telkom’s chief executive Mugo Kibati says the balloons are solar powered and wind controlled, emphasizing that the model is the most applicable in Kenya’s quest in addressing the internet connectivity inequality in the country.
The speed of the Loon internet ranges from 18-20 megabytes per second for downlink and 4-9 mbps for uplink with a delay of 19 milliseconds.