"Making Africa Fit for the 21st Century" – Let’s Ready Our People for the Healthcare Business

By Dr Allan Pamba – Roche Diagnostics
Opinion Making Africa Fit for the 21st Century – Let’s Ready Our People for the Healthcare Business

Nairobi, May 2024—Africa Day on 25 May—and Africa Month for the duration of May—celebrate the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) on 25 May 1963 and the progress Africa has made in the global environment. This is an opportune time to reflect on the strides made in healthcare across the continent. Indeed, Africa has much to be proud of regarding its journey towards freedom and realising its economic potential.

We have seen governments more willing to partner with private entities to fund and manage healthcare projects – for example, in Nigeria, where a Public-Private Partnership project established a state-of-the-art diagnostic centre in Lagos.1

This centre, founded in partnership with the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), Roche Diagnostics, as part of its Global Access Program, and other organisations, is scaling up access to HIV viral load tests and has expanded to include other critical infectious diseases. The program has contributed significantly to the global effort to eliminate HIV/AIDS and other diseases.2

Public-Private Partnerships are steadily improving African healthcare infrastructure and addressing gaps in healthcare services. In 2023, the WHO (World Health Organisation) Member States’ adoption of the Resolution on Strengthening Diagnostic Capacity was another monumental step towards addressing the disparities.3,4

Looking ahead, technology and telemedicine are expected to proliferate, including using artificial intelligence and machine learning in diagnostics and patient care management. These technologies have the power to increase access to healthcare and streamline healthcare delivery mechanisms for maximum efficiency.3

The question we should be asking now is, “What comes next?”

We are establishing the necessary vehicles to get us to the ever elusive finish line, but, as with any vehicle, we need competent drivers to get us there. Viral load testing instruments are only as good as the qualified medical professionals who operate them, and one of the most significant hurdles in African healthcare is not just the lack of diagnostic tools or treatments but also the need for more trained healthcare workers to effectively utilise these tools.

Laboratory diagnostics are vital to maintaining our momentum, given their capacity to drive precision in up to 70% of all clinical decisions. This is why, beyond driving access to diagnostic equipment, we should also invest in building diagnostic capabilities by training the next generation of healthcare professionals.5

The theme for Africa Month in 2024 is “Educate an Africa fit for the 21st Century: Building resilient education systems for increased access to inclusive, lifelong, quality and relevant learning in Africa.” To me, this is a multi-layered message. Beyond its immense natural and commercial resources, human capital is one of the continent’s most significant drawcards for foreign investment.

At the time of writing, Africa’s population is almost 1.5 billion, with a median age of 18.8. This young, capable population has the potential to change the game. By empowering these young people with knowledge and tools for healthier living and educating them on the possibilities of careers in science and healthcare, we can make an immensely positive impact on the continent's health landscape.6

Testing and laboratories are the lifeblood of effective health systems, and they require specific expertise to deliver impact for African patients. Strategic and committed investment in training laboratory workers is a critical component that enables and builds the testing capacity needed in the fight against Africa’s dual burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases. perfectly summed up the disparities in the supply of qualified pathologists: “Constant Demand, Patchy Supply.” The same article, citing the first comprehensive study on the global pathologist workforce, points out that, on average, people have access to fewer than three pathologists per million in Africa.8

The article also states that many surgeons consider pathology a luxury, with one expert estimating that 80% of samples are either not collected or are thrown away. Essentially, this leaves doctors “driving blind” and highlights the urgent need to address the lack of trained diagnostic workers and laboratory capacity.

In this context, then, what is the answer to the question, “What comes next”?

Let’s start with advocacy, encouraging more young people to consider careers in life-saving pathology. Let’s leverage government funding and private sector expertise to increase the number of residents in training, finding ways of using technology and digital assistance systems to streamline training processes.

Additionally, in this era of rapid innovation, let’s make testing quicker and easier for the end user by employing AI and integrated testing systems that use existing infrastructure to produce more tests in less time.

At the Roche Scientific Campus in Johannesburg, we aim to provide hands-on, certified training courses for lab technologists and engineers, lab management training for managers, and education on health and scientific topics for healthcare professionals and scientists in chemistry, haematology, molecular biology, tissue diagnostics and sequencing.

To date, the Roche Scientific Campus has hosted 444 courses and over 1,000 training days involving over 8,000 trainees – and this is the tip of the iceberg. With the WHO Resolution on Strengthening Diagnostics Capacity as our guidebook, we can urge policymakers and governments to prioritise access to diagnostics, promoting widespread awareness and education among Africa’s young people – many of whom may not even be aware that a career in pathology is an option.

Public-private partnerships can elevate diagnostics' visibility in the public consciousness. If we work together, we can show the world how access to reliable diagnostic tests can change communities and build a generation's future through better health outcomes and careers in science. If we are resolute, we can prompt investment in healthcare systems that will truly make Africa Fit for the 21st Century.

Africa Day reminds us of our progress, but it also highlights the work that lies ahead in ensuring equitable access to healthcare for all Africans. Through collaboration, innovation and partnership, we can realise our vision of a healthier and more prosperous Africa.

Happy Africa Month to all my fellow Africans!

By Dr Allan Pamba, Executive Vice President, Diagnostics, Africa, at Roche Diagnostics