Digital Health Research in Africa

This topic is intended for discussions about digital health research questions in Africa, communication of interim research results, progress blogs by PhD students or calls for (international) scientific collaboration.

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Priorities for African digital health research

Only few African universities have been actively involved in setting up digital health research programs. Most institutions first work on the implementation of bachelor and master programs in digital health before venturing into their own research activities within this new discipline. Nevertheless, it seems justified to conduct research that is better suited to the specific context and needs of African countries, which is characterized, among other things, by:

  • limited financial and material resources
  • important competence and knowledge gaps
  • inadequate energy supply
  • patchy internet coverage
  • own cultural and sociological determinants

It may therefore be interesting to think thoroughly about digital health research priorities in which African universities can make a difference. Pan-African and international cooperation on these themes can provide opportunities to pool resources and achieve better results faster. What could these research priorities be? At the Digital Health Campus in Kinshasa, the choice was provisionally made for (i) digital health sociology, (ii) Artificial Intelligence and big data for low resource settings, (iii) clinical decision support for low resource settings and (iv) biomedical engineering for low resource settings. A collaboration between the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in Belgium and the universities of Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Bukavu in DRC has been started in this context.

International (pan African) cooperation on these themes would be more than welcome. But it is equally interesting just to know what digital health research topics other African academic institutions are focusing on today and what partnerships they may have already entered into.


Over the last 20 years, ‘ecosystem’ has (also) become a business-concept. It places emphasis on the interdependence of organizations to realize a common goal. Adner (2016) defines an ecosystem as ‘ the alignment structure of the multilateral set of partners that need to interact in order for a focal value proposition to materialize’. According to this definition, an ecosystem exists of a multiplicity of partners who all have a defined position within the system and activity flows among them. Relationships are not an aggregation of bilateral interaction and all actors in the system have a joint value creation effort as a general goal. This makes the value proposition the foundation of the ecosystem. Each partner in this ecosystem has its own strategy. It is defined ‘by the way the actor approaches the alignment of partners and secures its role in a competitive ecosystem’.

Greater collaboration has its upside and downside. Together you can accomplish greater things with greater efficiency than you could ever accomplish alone. On the other hand, your success depends not just on your own efforts, but on your partners’ efforts as well. Adner (2012) defines two types of risk, introduced by your ecosystem partners: the co-innovation risk and the adoption chain risk. They both are a consequence of the interdependency within an ecosystem. Co-innovation risk refers to the probability that all partners will be able to satisfy their innovation commitments within a specific time frame. Adoption chain risk refers to the probability that partners will make necessary adoptions to their activities to allow the innovation to reach optimum sales (Leavy, 2012). Both risks can be managed pro-actively, when recognized in advance.

Do you think this ecosystem approach will be of help in making further progress in transforming healthcare in Africa? How?

Adner, R. (2012). The Wide Lens. A New Strategy of Innovation . London, UK: Portfolio Penguin
Adner, R. (2017). Ecosystem as Structure: An Actionable Construct for Strategy. Journal of Management, 43 (1), 39-58
Leavy, B. (2012). Interview Ron Adner: Managing the interdependencies and risks of an innovation ecosystem. Strategy & Leadership, 40 (6), 14-21

The choices made at the digital health campus in Kinshasa are really interesting and indeed paramount in the digital health research domain. The other choice that we may want to give attention to is patient safety, Patient safety can be defined as the absence of preventable harm to a patient during the process of health care and reduction of risk of unnecessary harm associated with health care to an acceptable minimum. My thought is to channel our minds to health informatics topics that ensure patient safety as we introduce technology in the care industry in Africa. An example would be digging into patient identification using sophisticated mechanisms like facial recognition and fingerprinting. Such research will ensure patients are not wrongly identified before care is administered. In the long run , this ensures patient safety in one dimension or the other. Now I know what am suggesting may fall under artificial intelligence but I think it needs to be special attention as AI is a big umbrella