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Calls for single network to boost healthcare connectivity

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 24 Apr 2024
Dr Denisha Jairam-Owthar, group CIO of the Council of Medical Schemes. (Photograph by Strike a Pose Studios)
Dr Denisha Jairam-Owthar, group CIO of the Council of Medical Schemes. (Photograph by Strike a Pose Studios)

Connectivity will be a crucial part of creating South Africa’s proposed National Health Insurance (NHI), says Dr Denisha Jairam-Owthar, group CIO for the Council of Medical Schemes.

Jairam-Owthar yesterday delivered the keynote address at the Public Sector ICT Forum in Houghton, Johannesburg.

The forum for public sector ICT decision-makers held its event under the theme: “Connecting the forgotten: Amplifying the pulse of South Africa's health sector”, exploring the role of technology and connectivity in healthcare.

South Africa is considered one of the most unequal societies when it comes to access to healthcare, with just over nine million out of a possible 60 million people on medical aid.

Taking delegates through some of the country’s health statistics, Jairam-Owthar said 10% to 15% of the population can afford medical aid.

Furthermore, SA cannot continue having a two-tiered healthcare system, she stated, noting that medical aid is becoming more expensive, with less people able to afford it.

“It’s important to bring equitable healthcare to this country. When measuring how well a country is doing, the first things to look at are the mortality rates, disease rates and all other health-related issues.

“Judging by the current data statistics, it is clear we need to start this journey that the UK may be 100 years into…and while theirs might not be perfect, this is our starting point as South Africa.

“The collaboration that needs to happen across government and the private sector is so important. If we think collectively, I believe we can really achieve so much, like we have done in the past. I also think we need to realise the goal of equitable healthcare for all, be aligned and understand its critical role as a nation.”

Driven by the National Department of Health, the NHI seeks to realise universal health coverage for all South Africans. It is a health financing system designed to pool funds to provide access to affordable personal health services for all South Africans based on their health needs, irrespective of their socio-economic status.

In June 2023, the National Assembly passed the NHI Bill, which envisages the establishment of the NHI Fund and sets out its powers, functions and governance structures. The fund will purchase healthcare services for all users who are registered with it.

Jairam-Owthar noted that collaboration, connectivity and network accessibility are among the main elements that would bring equitable healthcare to the fore.

“Accessibility can be broken down into having access, networks, collaboration and sharing of data. As a country, we did very well with the EVDS [electronic vaccination data system] with the little that we had and the urgency that was out there. We’ve proven that we can do it…there was collaboration between the public and private healthcare sectors.”

The lack of network accessibility is a frustration that many of the hospitals feel on the ground, she pointed out.

“One of the things that higher education institutions have managed to get right is that they use a model where all 26 universities in the country have access and they use Tenet, which is one platform. This means that not every university is paying for a different for network – there is a standard model that they all use.

“This is what we’re calling for in healthcare because a hospital located in a rural community should access the same network as a hospital found in the city of Joburg.

“There are more cellphones in this country than toothbrushes, so it is up to us to make that accessibility via connectivity happen.”

Speaking to ITWeb on the sidelines, Jairam-Owthar stressed the need to bridge healthcare disparities. “When there’s access, there’s equitable healthcare.

‘Bridging the gap in terms of the access to healthcare – being able to bring data together and making sure there are patient records from all different provinces that doctors and surgeons can access – will be enabled by technology and connectivity.”