The patchy security situation regarding patient-doctor exchanges of confidential medical information could well be holding up the spread of mobile healthcare programmes in African countries.

M-Health: Data Privacy Doubts Hampering Take-up in Africa

A recently-published report by TrustLaw Connect – entitled Patient Privacy in a Mobile World: A Framework to Address Privacy Law Issues in Mobile Health – highlights problems of data security linked to the use of mobile-device and wireless-based healthcare (m-Health) applications. These concerns are particularly relevant to a number of African countries, where the total absence of any specific data privacy regulation is proving to be a decisive factor in whether mHealth will be able to make further progress. Mobile health apps, which are to a very large extent designed to facilitate the exchange of digital data between patients and medical practitioners, are surrounded by a legal void in these countries and appear to need specific privacy regulation. Bill Philbrick, a technical advisor with UN-hosted non-profit organisation mHealth Alliance, sees this as a major problem. “The primary risk of not having explicit laws assuring patient confidentiality is that many people may avoid accessing necessary services,” he warns.

Africa analysis shows potential risks of mHealth

In fact the majority of African countries examined by TrustLaw Connect appear to be lagging behind those countries in Europe and North America which have implemented specific legislative packages governing data privacy in the field of mHealth technologies. This situation has been made worse, stresses the report, by the lack of data protection systems in the wider sense. Bill Philbrick expresses particular concern over sensitive cases such as when patients are diagnosed HIV-positive, and notes that especially “women may be reluctant to seek out health services for sexual and reproductive health out of concern that their personal health information is shared with third parties.” This is a fear that the TrustLaw Connect report seems to substantiate, pointing out that some patients are already refusing to use mHealth technology in their daily lives, as they wish to avoid revealing personal details.

Much-needed regulation

In order to respond to these new demands, a number of measures need to be taken. The report suggests following the US example, where sectoral privacy laws address specific privacy issues arising in certain industries and business sectors. The report underlines that without a solid common basis of legislation, mHealth applications, whose main objective is to provide the best possible healthcare in areas where doctors are few and far between, will not see takeup and progress on the African continent. On a wider scale, as exchanges of healthcare data across borders increase, it will be necessary to draw up minimum international standards if mobile healthcare is to go forward. 

By Quentin Capelle