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Welcome to Insight: Health

Author: B Njihia, University of Nairobi

Date: April 16th 2012

Source: NEJM Platinum Scholar


 ​Leveraging the Internet and Social Media in Healthcare – a Kenyan Perspective


The year is 2011. There are 1.65 hospital beds for every 1,000 people in Kenya. In a country where the total number of doctors in public service is short of 8,000 for a population of 40 million persons, access to healthcare for a vast majority of Kenyans is expensive at best. The telecommunications industry in Kenya however, has grown by significantly over the past decade. Mobile phone penetration is at a staggering 63.2% with 9.7% of the population having access to the internet. Facebook and Twitter consistently feature in the Top 10 most commonly visited sites by Kenyan internet users. With the landing of four undersea broadband fiber-optic cables landing off the coast of Kenya, internet connectivity is bound to become cheaper and more accessible to the populace and therein lays the potential of using it to bridge the gap in the healthcare divide.

The Internet as a Melting Pot

The World Wide Web brings people from different geographical locations together in a way no other technology has done thus far. Akin to the traditional African marketplace, it offers an avenue where people can meet and share ideas. The greatest potential I foresee for its use in the region is facilitation of collaborative research by scientists and clinicians. The Kenyan Oncological Research Database ( is one such venture that allows multi-clinician, multi-centric collation of cancer data sets in a bid to better characterize the patterns of presentation, treatment and outcomes of oncology entities.  Hand-in-glove with the internet is the mobile phone. Given its high penetration in the region, it has the potential to serve as a ‘multiplier’ of the doctor-resource available. The greatest impact is likely to be felt by patients who have chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension and cancer. By the development of applications with light-weight data footprints it will be possible for a doctor to monitor patient parameters such as random blood glucose levels without the patient having to walk up to 40 kilometers for a routine check-up. This will translate into better patient follow-up rates, improved patient knowledge on their condition and its management and greater doctor-patient relationships as both parties will see themselves as partners in the health of the patient.

Social Media – the Next Frontier

The real power of social media was recently felt in Kenya when Facebook and Twitter were used to help realize donations of over $10 million in just two weeks towards feeding the hungry. Crowd-funding had hitherto not been used on a large-scale locally but through customized platforms the urban affluent can be sensitized on the burden of those who cannot afford life-saving services such as dialysis.  The now ubiquitous mobile-money technology can then be harnessed and they can donate towards this cause.  In conclusion, this is a snapshot of what can be achieved by the internet and social media in the provision and delivery of health services in Kenya. If it can work in Africa, it can work anywhere else!

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