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The Internet of Health in Yaoundé – by Patrick Awondo

ShireenWalton12 September 2018

Author: Patrick Awondo

Over the last decade, Internet penetration rate in Cameroon has more than doubled, from around 10% in 2007 to 21-30% in 2017 (these figures leave aside small and medium-sized cities, and do not take into account connection-sharing practices that are part of people’s daily habits). The internet boom, made possible by the democratization of smartphones (which 80% of the population now have) has impacted significantly upon behavioural habits and the ways in which individuals and groups live at different stages of their lives. Among the areas chiefly affected by such changes, health is attracting attention in the digital landscape because it is the subject of unprecedented publicity, and is considered to offer many affordances to people.

In Yaoundé as in other African capitals, health remains a significant problem, but also, is undergoing  ongoing processes of change, and permanent questioning. In the smartphone age, health is an area of intense social activity. Three types of issues in the online health context deserve attention for the importance of the activities they generate:

  1. The variety of access to online health resources
  2. The diversity of information and forms of access offered by the Internet
  3. Challenges related to the density of supply, and what our colleague, Daniel Miller, perceives as inequality in interpretation, and the ability to appreciate in a fair and balanced way, the different “resources” of health online.

The variety of access to health resources

Generally speaking, people in Yaoundé use the Internet in contexts of/for health either to publicize health resources, that is to say, to present information that aims to simultaneously improve access to health through good practices. Or, to find the right information about very specific health problems. The latter is undertaken through a range of sites and links dedicated to specific health issues. Specific health issues can include pandemics such as malaria, tuberculosis or HIV / AIDS, which are priority public health problems usually treated by public health actors. However, people also turn to the Internet to search for diseases that have no visible presence in public health discourses, and which generally lack in public awareness – such as Typhoid fever, as well as certain female health issues such as ovarian cysts, dermatological problems, and infertility. These issues are addressed in forums, and blogs, but more and more, via dedicated Whatsapp groups that are often created by individuals with such concerns. There are also many health bloggers from Cameroon and the Cameroonian diasporas. Some are not always of Cameroonian descent or nationality, but blog membership appears most strong when individuals are Cameroonians or presented as originating from the country.

Overall, there are different ways of accessing the  internet of health in Yaoundé. Informants could be classified into 3 categories:

  1. those who watch YouTube for health
  2. those who Google-search health problems
  3. those who follow specialized health blogs

Health-searching practices on YouTube

Amongst my young informants, (19-31 years), the practice of searching for information on YouTube seems to be fairly common. Informants describe a typical double scenario, whereby they have a health concern, for various reasons that may be related to a lack of economic means, or the inability to join a health service. In this case, they will introduce on YouTube the name of one or more symptoms, which they hope a video will help inform them about. A 31-year-old security officer at a mobile phone operator explained how she regularly used YouTube on her smartphone to get video responses mainly about intimate grooming techniques, and a set of problems related to gynaecology. Interested in plant medicine, she regularly follows a “youtubeuse” specialized in herbal care for women. Many under-educated people like this female informant with limited income, but also among people with higher levels of education follow the youtubeurs of Cameroon almost daily. Other informants in the same social category stress that seeing a specialised doctor can be difficult in Yaoundé because of the high rates that these specialists practice. About 10,000 XAF consultation is already 10% of the salary of a security guard as our informant.

These high prices are not those charged in public hospitals, where a specialist costs half the price in private. Another factor determining the choice of Youtubeurs health advice is to be found in the strong competition that plant medicine imposes on modern Western medicine in Yaoundé. This appeal of alternative, natural therapies can be found amongst all social strata.

Those who “Google read” health on the Internet

During interviews and observations in one Yaoundean clinic, it appeared that searches on Google densified as a large part of the population access the Internet via the smartphone (specifically, the android phone, which is most popular here). Healthcare professionals in this capital’s leading private clinics point to the fact that a growing number of patients in consultation rooms are talking about diagnostic elements previously sought on the Internet, or afterwards in order to be able to make analogies by comparison.

The issue of individuals making their own comparisons with official health advice is intriguing. In another clinic, a 40-year-old teacher explained his reliance on seeking health information on Google through the dual need to better understand the disease from which his son had suffered from for 6 months at the time of the interview, but also, to compare the information received during diagnosis with that available on the Internet. If the case of this Father is not isolated, it reveals the complexity of different persons and needs that are engaged in via the search for health information on Google.

So while some informants point out curiosity and the primary need for knowledge of the disease or to understand the symptoms, this informant took to researching online for secondary purposes, to in some sense validate the official medical diagnosis. Another 44-year-old informant, a married, bookstore employee and Mother of two who lives in mvog-Ada, stressed the fact that the availability of the internet is a key factor in explaining its popularity and usage. Suffering from a Glaucoma, she went to an Ophthalmologist in a public hospital. The latter professional indicated that surgery was inevitable. Frightened and seeking reassurance, she turned to Google from her office to access information about her own illness. For this informant and for the first mentioned above, the search for information becomes a way to access a second opinion on the diagnosis of the doctor, especially in the case of serious diseases.

Health blogs and their followers

At the beginning of August, I was walking in the streets of Mvog-ada, the low-income neighborhood, when I was accosted by a group of people ;  two young men, a man, and a young woman, all wearing a green T-shirt on which read the name of a company that distributes herbal medicines. The group explained to me how they had created an online site with an active blog through which to communicate and sell their products. Like this distribution company, many groups have online blogs that are subscribed to by many Cameroonians. As a rule, these Blogs are put online from Cameroon and in particular the two big cities that are Yaoundé and Douala. But some of the blogs are often domiciled in Europe, particularly in France.

Such blogs cover broad health issues ranging from exclusively female problems (such as intimate care practices, ovarian problems, and so forth) to major pandemics (Malaria, Typhoid Fever, Cholera). There is also a very large number of sites dedicated to plant medicine. These plant medicine sites, still called herbalists, are very successful in the online contexts.

In sum, health on the Internet seems to play a major role in Cameroon, affecting the way people access health information on the one hand, and the way in which this – and also non-Internet accessed medical information such as doctors’ diagnoses – is evaluated. These last observations highlight two types of concerns: on the one hand, the difference between specialized and non-specialized information (also professional and non-professional); on the other hand, the issue of inequalities, linked to the ability of informants to analyze ‘good’ and ‘bad’ news offers. This brings us back to the classic issue of the reproduction of (health) inequalities related to economic context and education levels, and how these factors influence the use or non-use of information and the evaluation of their quality and/of efficacies.