Picture: 123RF/ISMAGILOV
Picture: 123RF/ISMAGILOV

Over the past year, as the pandemic kept us confined to our homes, digital technologies stepped in to meet our needs and maintain our virtual connection to the world.

From being able to work in virtual offices and spend time online with loved ones we are unable to visit to buying goods from e-commerce platforms, forward-thinking companies like Zoom and Takealot have raised the bar for the human online experience.

We’ve grown accustomed to higher levels of convenience and efficiency as customers, and citizens will start to expect the same from their governments. But as businesses continue to innovate and digitalise in response to our needs, the digital divide between the public and private sectors continues to widen. This is especially so in SA, where many government departments have not yet been able to move the public service into the 21st century.

This is surprising given that our government has repeatedly mentioned the need to respond to the fourth industrial revolution by supporting digital transformation and aiding in the building of a big data economy. In the 2020 state of the nation address, as well as this year’s, President Cyril Ramaphosa mentioned the imperative of digital migration.

While some steps in digital migration have been specifically identified — moving television from analogue to digital and licensing high-demand spectrum — the details of what the digitalisation of the SA public sector will look like are lost in their analogue transmission.

This is unfortunate when we consider the huge advantages a digital economy has to offer, especially during a pandemic and the resultant demand on public services. The health-care sector especially would benefit from a digitalised and more effective approach by government.

The majority of patient health records in public health care are kept in hard copy files in which health-care workers hand-write notes. The disadvantages of such a system are clear: records can be illegible, prone to getting lost or damaged, and left behind when a patient transfers to a new facility. Doctors cannot manage patients remotely, either from a different location within a large hospital or when not in the hospital at all.

The private sector has embraced electronic record-keeping and cloud storage, eliminating many of these problems, offering better outcomes for patients and health-care workers alike. Patients relying on public sector services are at risk of being disadvantaged because of manual record keeping and patient management systems alone.

There are also significant public health benefits to electronically stored health data that can be accessed from a centralised database. With privacy protections, anonymised data sets can be used to guide evidence-based medical practice by monitoring the effects of medical interventions in large populations over time. This is especially useful where artificial intelligence can be deployed to identify correlations in data, even where researchers are not actively looking for them, identifying new frontiers for clinical research.

One of the issues government will have to consider when the Covid vaccine rollout begins, for example, is how to ensure vaccines are stored, distributed and administered safely and effectively. Vaccines having to be kept at low temperatures within strict parameters, and the possibility of their being stolen, are important challenges that will have to be surmounted.

The government can leave these things to chance or it can deploy technologies to ensure things go according to plan. Cold chains, for example, can be monitored by internet of things (IoT) devices, which report any change or drop in temperature in a batch of vaccines as it happens. This information allows the problem to be addressed before the vaccines are rendered ineffective by heat, or ensure the defective vaccines are not administered to the public. Other applications of IoT technology includes real-time tracking and theft detection.

Our government has announced a vaccine strategy that will see vulnerable groups like the elderly and those with comorbidities being among the first in line to receive their doses. One of the issues faced in countries that have already begun rolling out the vaccine is knowing how many candidates there are in a given area. The UK, with its relatively sophisticated, digitalised health-management system, has used patient data to guide the distribution of doses to sites and ensure targeted patients are informed of their vaccine appointments. This prevents wastage and ensures maximum rollout efficiency.

Health care is just one example of how the public sector can be revolutionised by digitalisation. There are hundreds of other examples that apply to social security, home affairs, human settlements, basic education and the justice system, among others. The good news is that digital technology not only allows services like this to be performed more effectively, but lowers their fiscal cost.

What is needed is a commitment from government to finding more effective ways to harness the innovation and disruption the private sector is so good at. The local expertise and solutions required to move SA into and beyond the fourth industrial revolution exist. Let’s partner with them wisely to build a better and sustainable nation.

• Craker is CEO, and Matshoga public sector lead, at IQbusiness.

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