A boost for health research and collaboration in Africa
Healthcare in Africa faces many challenges; HIV and reproductive health are just two examples. The EU-funded AFRICA BUILD project set up an education, training and knowledge-sharing portal for African health researchers that helped build local capacities, facilitate learning and enhance collaboration between Africa and Europe.
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Collaborating with project partners from Egypt, Mali, Cameroon and Ghana, as well as experts from many other countries, the AFRICA BUILD consortium established a social platform for medical doctors in Africa. The platform was not limited to social and professional exchange, but also served to exchange course and teaching material.Together, the team also created two main modules for academic training that were integrated into a master’s programme at the different partner universities. As a result, the students were able to work towards certificates for these courses from their home university, increasing their appeal.
The courses and materials mainly focused on HIV and reproductive health issues, but also gave instructions on how to write scientific papers and develop research. Others taught medical informatics, including medical record-keeping, data mining, medical decision-making and more.
Moreover, AFRICA BUILD did not merely create a community of users, but a community of developers, teaching participants how to create their own portals, databases and multimedia course. In this way, fresh information and material can be made available to meet the need for continued education and training.
The portal also served as a social network developed using open source technologies, and offered various programmes for accessing bibliographical information, managing courses, sharing resources, etc. all tied in with the usual Web 2.0 resources and social networks.
Potential for tremendous improvement
“The improvements we can bring about with medical informatics are tremendous,” says Victor Maojo, who coordinated the project on behalf of the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. “The use of computer technologies can change healthcare, particularly in poor countries, because it can give people remote access to doctors. It is not easy to find a specialist in many places in these poor countries. But through telemedicine and through this kind of portal, doctors can get training, medical expertise and many other opportunities that they would not have.”
Obviously, computer facilities are not yet very common in many parts of these developing countries, and internet access is slow and expensive in many of the more remote places. “For instance, many, if not most hospitals in Africa do not have a computerised system to manage patient information. More often than not, this information is stored in folders on shelves, so that they cannot access and exchange the data in a central system,” Maojo explains.
Modern, state-of-the-art smartphones, however, tend to be readily available, which is why the project partners developed a mobile version of the AFRICA BUILD Portal, optimised for low bandwidth internet connections.
An asset in times of conflict
While external factors such as the 2011 revolution in Egypt or the civil war that shook Mali from 2012 onward made the work more challenging – especially for the project partners in Africa – it also strengthened the consortium’s conviction that such a network was indeed a highly useful tool.
The use of IT and networks such as the AFRICA BUILD Portal would facilitate continued access to medical databases and protect against their complete loss in times of catastrophe or war – unfortunately rather regular occurrences in some African countries.
Today, more than a year after the completion of the project, many of the former partners are keeping the collaboration going, working on numerous papers and projects together. While some of the EU-based researchers are also involved in these joint ventures, the change towards a more collaboration-oriented research environment is particularly noticeable in the African partners: although this kind of collaboration was not very common for them, they have come up with several joint projects, showing that AFRICA BUILD was a step in the right direction.