Technology is a catalyst for improved healthcare, not a silver bullet

Johannesburg, 03 Dec 2021
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Digital technology can be a catalyst for improved healthcare systems, but technology is just part of a highly complex environment that has to integrate and align to deliver improved healthcare outcomes.

This is according to experts participating in a webinar on technology-enabled healthcare delivery, hosted by Amazon Web Services (AWS), in collaboration with ITWeb.

The National Health Department’s Chief Director for Policy Coordination and Integrated Planning, Milani Wolmarans, who is responsible for National Health Insurance (NHI) Information Systems, noted: “Technology alone is not a complete solution. It can be a catalyst, but no technology can force people to live healthier lives. We also need to look at the social and cultural aspects that come with the use of digital technologies. These are but tools in an ecosystem and we must recognise that the health system is a complex adaptive system with a multiplicity of microsystems that must interact.”

She continued: “It is exciting and exhilarating to focus on the novelty of technology. We can see its potential to positively disrupt the healthcare environment.”

At the same time, she said it was important to recognise that an absence of interoperability norms and standards had contributed to disparate and siloed systems where there is not the intended sharing of data. “A focus on interoperability is now a key priority for us. One initiative we are putting forward to stabilise the whole big data environment is the development and institutionalisation of identity management and the creation of essential registries leading towards one system for health records in South Africa, which ultimately will be managed by the patient,” said Wolmarans.

She said South Africa’s Electronic Vaccination Data System (EVDS) was set up in just weeks, made possible by the preparatory work that had been done by the Health Department. “The EVDS is now used in more than 3 000 vaccination sites by 11 000 vaccinators, with a record of each person to whom the vaccine is administered. We see this as a good use case and test case for the creation of national electronic medical records,” she said.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) Head of Healthcare for Sub-Saharan Africa, Jean Pierre Horne, said: “Technology is transformative, but it isn’t a silver bullet for South African healthcare. We need to consider and remedy the basic social issues such as access to technology, connectivity supply issues and other infrastructure challenges as a foundation for technology to start playing a critical role.”

Ultimately, Horne said transforming healthcare aimed to extend people’s lives. “Life expectancy in South Africa is relatively low. If all stakeholders can collaborate more effectively and create platforms to share information, we can start making those kinds of advances.”

CareConnect Chief Technology Officer Dr Rolan Christian said the key goal of digital innovation in healthcare was to drop the barriers to entry for good healthcare. “We have to drop the barriers to entry to a better health system and technology will enable that,” said Christian.

Wesley Solomon, Technical Assistant Support for the NHI and a member of the EVDS team, said improved healthcare systems underpinned by advanced technology could see South Africa moving to become a wellness-oriented society with a healthy workforce.

Mediclinic International Group General Manager for Digital Transformation Dr Julian Fleming said technology and collaboration could see improved quality of care and overall patient experience with reduced costs, resulting in an exponential increase in value to the patient. 

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