How are young people in South Africa using mobile phones to bridge healthcare gaps?

How are young people in South Africa using mobile phones to bridge healthcare gaps?

Young people account for 30% of the population in South Africa, with just under 15 million young people aged 10 – 24 years. Adolescence is considered a time of both risk and opportunity: When rapid physical and psychological changes may lead to a rise in risk behaviour, substance abuse, sexual and reproductive health problems, violence and mental illness.2 Adolescent health and behaviour are also key determinants of the adult burden of disease. It is therefore critical to invest in youth friendly services that promote physical and mental health, and enable young people to successfully navigate the challenges of adolescence and take on adult responsibilities.

Young people experience a range of barriers that limit their access to healthcare services including transport costs, clinic hours clashing with school timetables, negative attitudes from healthcare workers and a lack of privacy and confidentiality.

The rapid development of information and communication technology (ICTs) – particularly access to mobile phones – has the potential to address these challenges and improve young people’s access to health-related information and services, especially in poor, remote settings. The World Health Organisation has recognised how mobile health (m-health) programmes have the potential to bring services closer to adolescents by providing 24-hour access and confidential, anonymous and personalised interactions.

While there has been significant investment in m-health initiatives across Africa, little research has been done on how young people actually use mobile phones to seek healthcare – insight that is critical in understanding how the uptake of new ICTs might entrench and/or disrupt health inequalities. This research brief presents key findings from a study led by Durham Universityi to investigate the use of mobile phones amongst youth in Sub-Saharan Africa and considers the implications for policy and practice.

Specific recommendations:

  • improve access and coverage especially in rural areas.ii This includes lobbying government and service providers to extend coverage, reduce data costs and/or provide free access to m-health initiatives and government services
  • improve digital literacy through initiatives that target in- and out-of-school youth and adolescents so that they are empowered and enabled to navigate the unregulated digital world and evaluate the trustworthiness of online information
  • engage with young people and youth organisations to develop m-health resources that are responsive to young peoples’ real needs
  • strengthen links between m-health initiatives and youth-friendly clinics and school health services to ensure that health-seeking behaviour is supported by access to quality healthcare
  • raise public awareness about m-health initiatives to increase uptake through carefully targeted multimedia campaigns, public service announcements, school health services, and youth-friendly clinics
  • regulate medical advertising, particularly advertising that targets young people
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