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Using technology and data to improve healthcare in South Africa

By , Executive: Software Engineering, Altron Systems Integration.
08 Dec 2023
Steve Bottger, Executive: Software Engineering at Altron Systems Integration.
Steve Bottger, Executive: Software Engineering at Altron Systems Integration.

Imagine the potential to pinpoint and react to a cholera outbreak with real-time medical information or being able to receive immediate alerts to a measles outbreak in a certain community. The potential of technology and data to improve healthcare in South Africa is vast and transformative.

Despite the existing challenges in healthcare, data shows that Telehealth through remote consultations are not only feasible but also deemed safe and effective. Healthcare professionals should actively improve their skills in carrying out telehealth, virtual, or remote consultations to meet the changing demands of the healthcare environment.

In 2017, only 16.9% of South Africans had a medical aid scheme, leaving at least 45 million people relying on an overburdened public health care system. However, with over 36 million people accessing the internet through any mobile device, and 22 million people having smartphones, using technology to increase access to reliable healthcare is imperative. Especially for the millions of people who lack access to healthcare in the more remote areas of the country, it is a real game changer.

Recognising the enormous impact telehealth can have locally, the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) last year updated their guidelines to allow the remote management of patients.

From a local perspective, Telehealth not only enhances access to quality healthcare for residents in remote areas but also improves patient outreach, reducing transport costs and productivity losses. The ability to remotely monitor patients and the related increase in medical compliance are added benefits. Added to the advantages of Telehealth is that it negates having to write physical scripts or take down patient notes. Utilising AI means that sessions are recorded and stored, and scripts can be sent via an app to the patient, or directly to the nearest pharmacy.

Looking from a clinic or practice perspective, Telehealth means increased revenue potential for suppliers as there will be less office space and admin staff required. As seen during the Covid-19 pandemic when HCPs had to reconsider and reinvent their interactions with patients, Telehealth means that there is minimised disease transmission as compared to sick patients being in crowded waiting rooms and less risk for HCPs.

With advances in technology and increased access to the internet, Telehealth is set to become a normal way of life in the future, with a huge push expected from business as the wellbeing and productivity of staff is prioritised.

As in many other sectors in South Africa, the increasing focus on the benefits of the ethical and reliable capture and use of data is also key when it comes to Telehealth.

The potential for HCPS and specialists to be able to store and share patient information to improve patient care is groundbreaking.

Given that the sharing of sensitive data is authorised by the patient and stored confidentially and securely, these types of resources can be pooled to better understand the need of a patient, as well as track and trace disease progression in real-time.

While technology is no doubt opening up the ability to have new ways to access healthcare, the trick is for the relevant stakeholders to equip themselves with the right scalable platforms and knowledge to utilise the data effectively to transform and improve the healthcare landscape.

Alma Clinics is one example of where AI is being used successfully to enable comprehensive and affordable healthcare. This nurse-led digital native primary healthcare provider aims to tackle and prevent chronic diseases by offering physical clinic, home or telehealth services using world-class technology to broaden reach, improve efficiencies and remove human error.

There are some challenges in Telehealth, including aspects such as the limitations when a patient needs blood work or imaging tests, but the future of telehealth is here. With the right partner to provide support with innovative platforms, leveraging data and record keeping, Telehealth can lead to better care, better access to services, increased convenience and improved patient outcomes, while also reducing costs and the burden on the already strained healthcare system.

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