Hospitals and healthcare systems worldwide are at a tipping point. As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to soar across the globe, the situation remains dire for African countries. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, widespread misinformation, and stigma attached to the coronavirus have severely affected critical healthcare access and delivery for many patients. There have been reported cases of hospitals refusing to provide care for patients with chronically ill diseases like diabetes unless these patients have tested negative for the coronavirus. Furthermore, many healthcare workers continue to face anxiety surrounding patient care since many of them lack the necessary PPE they need to protect themselves and their patients.

These fears forced some health facilities to temporarily shut down at the beginning of the pandemic. Combined with a steep decline in patient volume, which fell to its lowest during the government mandated shutdowns earlier this year, most health facilities haven't fully recovered. Without patients, health services like visitations and surgeries, which form the backbone of hospitals’ earnings, cannot be conducted and hospitals are put in financial distress. Despite these seemingly dire circumstances, the pandemic offers an opportunity for hospitals across the continent to build resilient healthcare systems that can withstand future disease outbreaks or market disruptions.

Here are three ways private hospitals can transform healthcare delivery in the aftermath of COVID-19.

1. Increased transparency on infectious disease control, sanitation, and safety protocols.

A medical doctor assisting another with her PPE. (Source: WHO) 

Until a coronavirus vaccine is developed, private hospitals will need to adopt even more rigorous infectious disease control and sanitation procedures to ensure the safety of their staff and patients. Patients are understandably cautious to check in to a health facility for fear of being exposed to the virus and they want to know what hospitals are doing to allay this concern. Implementing safety protocols that include mandatory mask policies and health screenings for staff, patients, and visitors, expanded use of high-grade disinfectant to clean key hospital spaces, hand sanitizer stations installed in communal and patient-care areas, and contact-less or virtual check-in procedures are necessary steps that private hospitals should take to comply with reasonable cleanliness standards.

However, it is simply not enough for private hospitals to say they are ramping up these safety efforts. They must be transparent in making sure these efforts are disclosed to all parties. As lockdown restrictions ease across Nigeria in key states like Lagos and Abuja, private hospitals should increase their communications efforts to win back patient confidence. Sharing health alerts via emails and text messages is one way to keep patients informed of changes in emergency services and infectious disease control protocols. These mediums can also be used to share information on what guidelines private hospitals are following to identify, isolate, and care for COVID-19 patients, as well as other patients with highly infectious diseases. Hospital software like Helium Health’s Electronic Medical Records (EMR) solution includes patient engagement tools that make it easy to share such information.

2. Leverage technology to improve healthcare quality and delivery.

A doctor conducting an exam and inputting the records in Helium EMR

Amid widespread stay-at-home orders and calls for social distancing, Nigerians are increasingly turning to telemedicine in an effort to limit in-person hospital visits. Telemedicine leverages multimedia channels such as video, audio, and text to virtually connect patients to licensed health professionals. Local startups like Helium Health, Oncopadi, and Wellvis are already using telemedicine to provide on-demand health and technology solutions for healthcare providers, patients, and payers across West Africa. Telemedicine also enables healthcare experts to effectively identify, monitor, and treat symptoms in patients. For example, in China, doctors used AI-based software across Chinese hospitals to identify clusters of pneumonia cases and support improved diagnostic COVID-19 testing, which aided the country’s coronavirus response.

A hospital's front desk attendant searching through Helium EMR

In this COVID-19 era, private hospitals across Africa should integrate technology into all aspects of healthcare service, from the point of access to the point of delivery, to meet the unique demands of this moment. Embracing technology-driven solutions such as digitizing administrative processes and medical records can help hospitals and health facilities accrue cost-savings that can be directed towards other capacity-building hospital resources like additional educational and training resources for staff and clinicians, infrastructure support to streamline triage systems and innovative staffing methods. If done right, telemedicine can also drive up revenues for hospitals experiencing declines in income due to low patient volume. Additionally, strategic partnerships between private hospitals and leading Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) in Nigeria presents a win-win opportunity for all parties involved. By engaging private health facilities to provide telemedicine services, HMOs ensure that hospitals earn revenue to keep them in business to provide more complex care like surgeries and other specialist services. For private hospitals, telemedicine partnerships with HMOs could increase their revenue as the absence of geographical and logistical barriers enable such providers to expand their telehealth services to a larger patient pool. Patients also win with way, more patients receive improved access to care regardless of geographical distance.

3. Upskill hospital administrators for improved operational efficiency and financial sustainability

A helium health team member conducting a training exercise with a hospital administrator.

Operating a hospital in the wake of a public health crisis requires more than clinical competency. Frontline healthcare workers across Africa are already experiencing unprecedented levels of stress and exhaustion, and as a result, maintaining morale while simultaneously providing quality healthcare delivery is top of mind for many hospital administrators. Since most private hospitals in Nigeria are run by medical doctors and healthcare professionals, it is imperative that these administrators properly manage their hospitals and keep their staff motivated. Having leadership training in self-awareness, communication skills, and team dynamics can help administrators make decisions that are in the best interests of their workforce.

The pandemic has also increased visibility for and investments in the entire African healthcare ecosystem for startups and traditional healthcare institutions alike. Hospital administrators need to be equipped with financial management and fundraising training to better position themselves to receive these investments. At a time when the hospitals are facing significant revenue declines, and preliminary studies of the after-effects of COVID-19 on survivors indicate long-term health conditions, healthcare providers need funding to keep functioning while preparing for the anticipated increase in chronic disease burden. Injecting additional funding into hospital operations can make a significant difference. However, hospital administrators will need to be upskilled in financial literacy and management in order to optimally manage such investments so they can continue providing quality healthcare for their patients while remaining financially sustainable. For long term impact, incorporating leadership and management training for healthcare professionals in the curriculum of medical schools could be a gamechanger for healthcare delivery on the continent.

COVID-19 has revealed key structural problems and disparities within Africa’s healthcare system. Adopting robust, transparent infectious disease control procedures, embracing technology solutions, and operating hospital resources more efficiently are only the first steps private hospitals can take as they provide patient care and adapt to the new normal. While medical researchers are only still uncovering the long-term effects of COVID-19, the demand for healthcare services is expected to be greater to care for COVID-19 survivors. Private hospitals and healthcare facilities, which provide care to over 50% of the population in some countries like Nigeria, must be prepared for this reality. In the face of insufficient public healthcare infrastructure, private hospitals must ensure that a strategic response and preparedness plan for the future is in place to enable better healthcare access, delivery, and management across the healthcare value chain.

About Helium Health

Helium Health is Africa’s largest SaaS health tech provider. The company provides a suite of interconnected technology solutions that serve as the digital infrastructure for powering healthcare across emerging markets. These solutions for providers, payers, patients and public health partners transform healthcare delivery by improving efficiency, reducing cost and uncovering actionable data. Our flagship product, the Helium EMR/HMIS, is the most widely used EMR solution in West Africa.