Drones and phones: Rwanda’s high-tech healthcare revolution

Tuesday, November 12, 2019


Rwanda’s adoption of technological solutions to public health challenges is driving remarkable progress towards universal health coverage. This article is part of a series about the power of innovation to solve social and economic challenges, and is adapted from the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Global Innovation Index 2019, Chapter 15, authored by Parfait Uwaliraye, Patrick Ndimubanzi, Andrew Muhire and Valencia Lyle, Ministry of Health, Rwanda.


In Rwanda, difficult terrain and gaps in infrastructure have traditionally meant that a large portion of the rural population suffered with limited access to essential medical supplies like blood and vaccines.


While many other places face similar challenges, the Rwandan government’s strong political will, its enthusiasm for new technology, and—as the World Intellectual Property Organization reports in its 2019 Global Innovation Index—the nation’s relative market and business sophistication, have helped create an ecosystem that is enabling extraordinary improvements to medical provision.


Life-saving drones


Rwanda’s difficult terrain has historically restricted access to essential medical supplies, severely hindering doctors’ abilities to save lives.


In October 2016, the Ministry of Health began collaborating with U.S.-based manufacturer Zipline to deploy medical drones that can deliver life-saving supplies to patients in critical conditions.


Today, serving Rwanda’s 21 district hospitals, the drones ensure that blood products are instantly accessible, reducing delivery times from 5 hours to 30 minutes. The cold-chain capability of the drones also preserves the quality of vaccines and blood.


The drones are a financial boon: their efficiency has solved a problem with expired blood, saving the Government over US$50,000 every year on the disposal of out-of-date supplies. Emergency shipment by drones has also been found to be more cost-effective than common transport means like ground ambulances and motorcycles.



A nurse in your phone


Long waiting times to see a medical professional in Rwanda have been due to the country’s low doctor-to-patient ratios. Today, access to healthcare has increased, with the help of two new mobile phone-based medical services.


The first is mobile phone app Babyl Rwanda. With over 2 million registered users—roughly 30% of the adult population—and over 280,000 consultations already performed, Babyl Rwanda gives users fast and affordable online access to triage nurses, senior nurses and GPs. Babyl Rwanda is now starting to use artificial intelligence to support human expertise, driving greater capacity.


RapidSMS is another mobile health innovation, but this one focuses on outreach. Community Health Workers (CHW) – of which there are about 60,000 throughout Rwanda – feed health information about vulnerable community members – such as pregnant women and infants – to a central database that is monitored by doctors.


The service notifies medical professionals when life-threatening complications arise, who then advise the CHW on the best course of action. RapidSMS is bringing dramatic improvements to maternal and neonatal healthcare, in particular.



New ways of learning


Integrating technology into the health service safely and effectively requires high-quality training for health workers. Their education has become a priority in Rwanda, where issues with infrastructure and distance contribute to problems with absenteeism on face-to-face courses.


Following significant investment in installing fiber optic networks across the country, e-learning has became a feasible option. Now, standardized online learning courses are able to reach even the most remote workers.


A recent e-learning course trained staff in all public hospitals on the use of data and data management, with 60 participants now trained to integrate leading data-quality mechanisms into their daily work practices.


Good governance, cross-departmental cooperation and an enthusiasm for new technologies are leading to health equity in Rwanda.


The Global Innovation Index 2019 is the result of a collaboration between Cornell University, INSEAD, and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) as co-publishers, and their Knowledge Partners, Confederation of Indian Industry, Dassault Systemes, Sebrae, Brazilian Micro and Small Industry Support Services, and Brazilian Confederation of Industry.


Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0) licence. That means you can copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format for any purpose, even commercially, but you cannot change it in any way.


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