Telehealth untapped in local healthcare industry

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 28 Oct 2019
Jasper Westerink, CEO of Philips Africa.
Jasper Westerink, CEO of Philips Africa.

While South African healthcare professionals are gradually becoming comfortable with technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and online health applications, telehealth is still an untapped tool in the local healthcare industry.

This is one of the key findings of the Future Health Index (FHI) 2019 report, titled: “Transforming healthcare experiences: Exploring the impact of digital health technology on healthcare professionals and patients”, conducted by health technology company Philips, among 3 100 adult healthcare workers in 15 countries.

The countries surveyed were Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, The Netherlands, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, Poland, UK and US.

Now in its fourth year, the study focuses on the role digital health technology plays in improving the individual citizen and healthcare professional experience – two elements of the ‘quadruple aim’ which seeks to enhance patient experience, improve population health and reduce costs.

This year’s report identified three key themes: engaged and digitally enhanced healthcare professionals, empowered patients with more control through access to data, and key lessons that can be learned from forerunners like China, Saudi Arabia, India and Russia.

It revealed that in SA, there is a keen appetite for digital healthcare technology and remote access to digital health records – with the majority of the country’s surveyed healthcare professionals reporting their own experience has improved with digital access to a patient’s full medical history.

However, only 40% of healthcare professionals are currently utilising digital health records, potentially in part because of challenges around infrastructure and the cost of investing in this type of infrastructure.

This number is significantly lower than the 15-country average of 76% of healthcare professionals currently using digital health records.

Digital diagnosis

Speaking at the announcement of the FHI results this morning in Johannesburg, Romulen Pillay, MD of Philips SA, explained that while the majority of healthcare professionals in SA are sharing data within their hospital or health facility, limited sharing of patient information occurs outside the institution.

“While health systems vary from country to country, in SA key findings that emerged are that patients are far more likely to make decisions that will improve their health outcomes when integrating technology; secondly, engaged healthcare workers who use digital healthcare records and mobile and online platforms experience better job satisfaction as they witness better and quicker results from their patents.

“But not enough patients are sharing data with healthcare professionals; particularly those who may be outside their primary healthcare facility. This would help patients themselves to make an important contribution to building data-rich healthcare systems.”

The research shows healthcare professionals around the globe using digital health records already see a positive impact on quality of care (69%), their own satisfaction (64%) and patient outcomes (59%).

However, it cites that the overwhelming majority of local patients admit security concerns and affordability of the latest healthcare technologies remain a huge barrier to adoption.

“Telehealth can, for example, bridge the gap for the 74% of South Africans who did not visit a healthcare professional when they had a medical reason to go,” noted Jasper Westerink, CEO of Philips Africa.

“Telehealth can not only drive greater access to care, it can also improve the patient experience by cutting down on the amount of time they need to wait to see a professional: 88% of patients reported having to wait over an hour to see a general practitioner, while 92% had to wait over an hour to see a specialist.”

AI also has a vital role to play, with the majority (91%) of South African healthcare professionals feeling comfortable using AI to treat patients. In fact, the country’s healthcare professionals show more confidence in using the technology than their counterparts across all 15 countries surveyed: 79% are comfortable using it for patient monitoring, compared to the 15-country average of 63%, while 76% are comfortable to use it to flag patient anomalies, compared to the 59% 15-country average.

Leveraging these technologies can therefore undoubtedly help achieve the ‘quadruple aim’ by improving both the patient and healthcare professional experience, fostering better outcomes and lowering the cost of care, notes the report.

In fact, 58% of South African patients with access to their digital health records said they were proactive in taking care of their health.

“Giving an individual access to their own health data makes them more likely to engage with it in a way that will improve the quality of care they receive. The same is true for SA, even though adoption is lagging in places and needs to be addressed,” Westerink pointed out.

Learning from forerunners

A key take-out of this year’s FHI was that South Africa can learn from forerunners such as China, Saudi Arabia and India, emerging countries that are successfully leapfrogging challenges by adopting digital health technology.

Individuals in India, China and Saudi Arabia who are using digital health technology or mobile apps frequently report the information they receive from their digital health technology or mobile apps led them to regularly contact a healthcare professional.

SA falls below the 15-country average (46%) in terms of individuals tracking their own health indicators – 41% of patients who have seen a healthcare professional in the last year have taken action by tracking their health indicators.

“Increasing not only the adoption, but also the utilisation of digital health technology among South Africans could empower patients to adopt a more proactive attitude toward health management, ultimately improving healthcare outcomes,” concluded Westerink.