SA’s tight regulatory environment poses a challenge to the roll out of new health technology, putting a damper on initiatives that could provide cheaper care to more people, a senior government official conceded on Tuesday.

It took more than 18 months for the health department to obtain approval from the SA Pharmacy Council for its medicine-dispensing ATMs, the health department’s deputy director-general for National Health Insurance (NHI) Anban Pillay told a discussion hosted by Business Day and private hospital group Life Healthcare.

“SA has a deficit of pharmacists, but the Pharmacy Council saw it as a threat to jobs,” he said.

Gauteng and NGO Right to Care launched an ATM “pharmacy” that provides medication to patients with chronic illness in less than three minutes last year, in an effort to reduce congestion in public health facilities.

Panelists highlighted the potential of new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI)-assisted diagnosis and robotics, to improve access to healthcare services, but warned that resistance from healthcare professionals and red tape could throttle innovation.

“Regulatory hurdles are an impediment to the kind of step change we would like to see,” said Life Healthcare CEO Shrey Viranna.

There were opportunities for SA to “leap-frog” existing technologies and introduce innovative new digital health products, but they require an enabling regulatory environment, he said.

He cited Chinese company Ping An’s mobile medicine application “Good Doctor” as an example of innovative digital healthcare that could not be readily mirrored in SA due to the current regulatory environment. Good Doctor provides round-the-clock, online consultations and reaches more than 48-million people.

The Health Professions Council of SA has previously said that services offering online consultations breach patients rights to confidentiality, and the practitioner-patient relationship.