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Pilot project boosts healthcare system

Read time 4min 30sec

A mobile health information system (MHIS) rolled out by the health department, Qualcomm and MTN at a Port Elizabeth hospital, could be expanded to the rest of SA.

MHIS is a pilot project driven by a public-private partnership to provide nurses with point-of-care access to a searchable library of health information through wireless 3G-enabled smartphones.

During an announcement made last week in PE, the local government outlined the successes of Qualcomm's Wireless Reach project that saw 50 public sector nurses being given 3G smartphones providing access to medical information and interactive content.

Dr Siva Pillay, superintendent general at the Eastern Cape Health Department, commended the project saying it was a historical moment in terms of healthcare workers being enabled by technology.

“This initiative has opened the door to enabling nurses to do things differently to the way they have been working before. Technology can be used to address budget constraints.

“However, without broadband coverage, there is no access to information, which is like blindly flying a plane.”

Pillay suggested that another solution to connecting hospitals would be to install a virtual private network (VPN) connected to the Infraco cable. He admitted that the VPN could cost government up to R700 million, however, he noted that the solution would be necessary to address budget constraints.

“We are redeveloping the district health system and acknowledge that if we don't embrace technology, we will not be able to deliver on our promise of health services.”

However, Pillay refused to disclose the cost of the pilot project and said it would not be revealed as to how much it would cost, not only government but the private sector as well, to implement a nationwide roll-out.

Currently, according to Pillay, the Department of Health is carrying a R2.6 billion deficit from last year, and is now at R1.6 billion with a transformation plan to get it right.

Improving healthcare

In addition to the public-private partnership, AED Satellife Centre for Health Information and Technology, supported by funding grants by Qualcomm's Wireless Reach Initiative and the Henry E Niles and John M Lloyd Foundations, designed the MHIS.

The MHIS project was designed to improve the ability of nurses in rural areas by providing them with clinical information accessible using a Samsung smartphone, specifically.

Each device provides access to a pre-loaded library of health information and educational resources developed by AED Satellife. The wireless broadband connectivity was supplied by MTN.

The initiative allows nurses to use the smartphones to share information with their health community and to keep up-to-date with the latest information on epidemics and to look up information they would not normally be able to access in the field.

Motseki Majake, senior manager, government, MTN Business, said MTN's interest in the project lies in demonstrating its ability to roll out broadband wireless technology in under-serviced rural areas.

“Mobile operators have the ability to provide value-added services, and we need to understand how much a project like this will cost and how to distribute the services to other hospitals in the future.”

Positive outlook

Qualcomm senior director of government affairs, Elizabeth Migwalla, said: “After proving that the pilot project will work and is relevant in the South African context, it will be decided by the department whether to roll it out to the rest of the country and we will be taking it forward from there.”

According to Qualcomm, only 10.8% of SA's population has Internet access and only 0.09% has broadband Internet access. Generally, many public healthcare workers do not have access to health information and tools.

The results of the pilot project's evaluation, conducted by the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in PE, revealed that 92% of the respondents said that the mobile device was useful and indicated that they would be willing to purchase their own mobile device to improve efficiency and patient evaluation.

In addition, 81% of the nurses ranked retrieving information from the device as being easy. And 89% indicated that nursing practice was enhanced by making information accessible at the point of care.

Dr Esmeralda Ricks, a senior lecturer in the nursing sciences department at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, says: “The smartphone was found to be extremely useful because nurses could access information and share it with their colleagues and patients, especially those nurses who work at clinics in remote areas and need access to information to function optimally.”

Based on the positive results of the project, the public-private partnership will engage in further deliberations as to how to expand the project to other hospitals in the future.

Qualcomm says it formalised the Wireless Reach global initiative in 2006 and it has since deployed 56 projects in various stages of development in 28 countries, which aim to empower underserved communities through the use of 3G wireless technologies.

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