Technology has been a game changer in a myriad industries so it makes sense that it will ultimately disrupt the healthcare industry in the same way. The opportunities offered by technology and its potential effect on the healthcare industry were the focus of Business Day Dialogues in association with Life Healthcare, held in Johannesburg recently.

Technological advancements are expected to drive better quality healthcare, grow accessibility and even lower costs. “We can’t ignore the influences of our ageing population, pricing pressure, consumerism, and technology, which will all force innovative thinking in moving us forward in healthcare,” said Dr Shrey Viranna, group CEO of Life Healthcare.

“As healthcare stakeholders we need to embrace these influences and at the same time look at how we establish public-private partnerships to collaborate in working towards a consumer-led healthcare system where we include consumers in the solution.”

Innovation, added Viranna, needs to be focused on providing affordable healthcare with appropriate regulatory changes, which don’t have the unintended consequence of creating higher prices.

Technology, has to date, played only a limited role in the public healthcare sector, said Dr Anban Pillay, DDG: health regulation and compliance at the National Department of Health (DoH). He said the department needed to ensure the necessary infrastructure was in place to allow technology to play a greater role. The DoH has embarked on setting up a health patient registration system but this was only possible at healthcare facilities that have connectivity.

Pillay said the DoH would consider public-private partnerships where there was a business case for it and conceded that the regulatory environment needed to be more fluid.

Technology has the potential to be a game-changer in the delivery of both the back and front-end of healthcare, said Vukani Mngxati, CEO of Accenture Africa. As a start it could allow for easier access to mobile health services to help deal with the shortage of healthcare professionals prevalent in SA, particularly in the provision of preventative health services.

Despite the prevalence of available technologies, Mngxati said the will to implement them was often missing. Rather than waiting for the perfect technological solution, he argued that SA should be testing various options to provide an effective end-to-end health management system.

In a country such as SA, which lacks sufficient healthcare profession skills, artificial intelligence has the ability to bridge the gap, said Axel Baur, senior partner Hong Kong at McKinsey & Company. In the field of diagnostic imaging, he illustrated, MRI and CT scans could now be evaluated by an algorithm rather than a doctor. Liquid biopsy, a non-invasive approach to tumour molecular profiling, was a similarly disruptive technique allowing for earlier detection and greater precision.

“Technology will allow for more affordable access to healthcare as well as for healthcare to be more patient led, rather than doctor led,” added Baur. “Regulation needs to be balanced, ensuring healthy competition between healthcare providers, all the while putting the consumer front and centre.”

Given that the cost of healthcare globally is increasing, it’s imperative that SA has a regulatory framework which enables the implementation of new technologies which ensures that not only is healthcare accessible to all, but is also affordable, said Viranna.