By Dr Meshack Ndirangu, Country Director, and Fidelina Ndunge, Project Officer, Amref Health Africa in Kenya
Changing people’s health-related behaviour can have a major impact on some of the largest causes of mortality and morbidity. Improving the health seeking behaviour of communities and thereby creating demand for health services is essential to the realisation of universal health coverage (UHC).
Recent research published in the Journal for Public Health, draws attention to the relationships between health and behavioural practices. Behavioural factors that result in poor lifestyle choices and health seeking behaviour contribute to some of the leading causes of death and diseases such as heart disease, cancer and HIV/AIDS.
Common behavioural factors that contribute to illness or even death include risky sexual behaviour, unhealthy diets and physical inactivity, illicit use of drugs, alcohol abuse among others. Less commonly acknowledged is the relationship between socioeconomic status and health, effect of social networks and personal beliefs.
Making healthy choices such as having protected sex, embracing healthy eating, seeking health services when sick and regular physical activity and health checks can change health outcomes in Africa.
The 2030 Agenda, adopted at the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015, positioned Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) as key means of implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Identifying effective approaches and strategies that benefit the population as a whole will enable public health practitioners to operate more effectively and achieve more health benefits within the limited resources.
In Africa, digital interventions continue to play a major role in supporting behaviour change among health professionals, patients and the general public.
Mobile technologies in particular are increasingly being used in health care and public health practice to educate patients, and to facilitate compliance with chronic disease treatment.
Using digital technologies such as mobile phones, computers, or tablets to convey information and messages as part of an evidence-based multichannel SBC strategy can contribute to the adoption and maintenance of healthy lifestyle choices and result in increased access to health services and products. By enhancing these technologies with artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive analytics, we could begin shifting to precision public health in the same way that Nano particles can enable us practice precision medicine.
With Kenya’s mobile penetration edging towards 100%, young people are increasingly using digital technologies. Digital technology has the potential to provide accurate information to individuals when and where they want it and, with careful attention paid to design, may offer the added benefit of confidentiality, privacy, and anonymity. Digital technologies can contribute to improving knowledge and lifestyle choices on sexual and reproductive health, influencing attitudes, beliefs, tastes and expectations; and increasing self-efficacy in support of healthy reproductive behaviours.
Amref Health Africa has on its part continued to utilise various approaches including digital technologies to train various cadres of health care workers. Various Amref innovations such as mJali and Leap are already being used to improve health care in Kenya, while mLearning and eLearning are being employed to train health workers with great success. The use of digital technologies to reach adolescents and young people with sexual and reproductive health information, lifestyle choices, screening and routine medical check-ups among others, has been a significant channel aiding behaviour change and contributing to improved health outcomes in the communities that Amref serves.
The application of technology and success in innovation across health can be catalysed by entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship, the critical enabler to SDG 8, is increasingly recognised both as a source of locally developed innovation, but also as a key technology diffusion tool at both national and global levels.
Technology in and of itself does not lead to social change. For change to take place, technologies need to be appropriate and embedded with local knowledge. Rather than emulate a traditional development model where technology tends to be shaped by the economic forces that created it, the social change model being used by mobile phone advocates is driven by the forces of people’s local needs and is therefore able to respond quickly and appropriately.
This means that people at the grassroots level can think about what works for them and how they can use technology to foster social change and collective action.