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People queue for vaccinations at a site in Johannesburg. Picture: BLOOMBERG
People queue for vaccinations at a site in Johannesburg. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Nothing speeds up progress quite like a crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic was an enormous healthcare crisis globally, prompting the healthcare sector to peer into its inner workings and close the gaps that became apparent. Our healthcare system is on the precipice of significant change, with the pandemic having been the catalyst, and with that will come the opportunity to reinvent health care as we know it, accelerating the new health economy.

Coined by audit group PwC in a recent report, “Accelerating the health economy of tomorrow: transforming health systems and embracing innovation amid a pandemic”, the new health economy is an ecosystem of delivery, innovation and wellness, where health organisations thrive in an interconnected network. Each entity must adapt and develop a new strategic identity for the future as we all “repair, rethink and reconfigure” our operations with the shared purpose of reinventing health care. Reflecting on the report, there is a need to consider whether our country has recognised the potential of this new health economy in meeting the healthcare needs of its people.

SA, like many other countries, has been navigating this new health economy, with many of the building blocks of the “new normal” having been put in place long before the start of the pandemic. The question is, how do we ensure that we maintain momentum while ensuring it remains sustainable beyond the pandemic? A starting point is to understand its elements and through collaboration within the healthcare sector find ways to ensure that these speed up transformation.

Long before Covid took hold, telemedicine was touted as a tool to enhance access to health care for South Africans outside the health services reach. A national telemedicine system for SA was being planned as far back as 1998, with the long-term goal of making telemedicine live up to its potential as a valuable tool to improve access to high-quality and cost-effective healthcare services.

Fast forward to 2020 and the potential of telemedicine had not been reached thanks to poor take-up not only by medical practitioners but by patients themselves. Restrictive regulations by the Health Professionals Council of SA also played a role.

However, the pandemic prompted the council to be more lenient with its telemedicine regulations — for example, the rule that doctors are only allowed to virtually consult with patients with whom they have an established relationship was relaxed during the lockdown as it became evident that telemedicine provided a safe means to provide access to health services amid social distancing protocols.

For example, since the start of the pandemic to date nearly 150,000 Medscheme members chose to consult virtually with healthcare practitioners. The hope is that the pandemic has demonstrated that telemedicine offers a practical solution to not only broaden access to health care (virtual consultation costs are typically cheaper than face-to-face consultations) but to also enable those living in far-flung areas to access care.

However, the virtualisation of health care extends beyond virtual consultations. In the National Digital Health Strategy for South Africans (2019-2024), the government recognises the importance of digitisation as well as digitalisation in improving access to quality health care. The strategy is intended to benefit patients seeking access to healthcare services while enabling healthcare workers to provide better services and health systems managers to fulfil their population health management role.

The government’s efforts to create a framework for the provision of health care using digital technologies should be lauded; however, it is important to note that without innovation the plan will be dead in the water. It is important that there is continued collaboration in the healthcare sector to promote innovation within the sector.

We have seen this collaboration reap rewards with the recent launch of a health information exchange platform. One of the biggest costs of health care is diagnostic tests such as X-rays and blood tests. Patients often have to repeat tests to provide the same information to different healthcare practitioners.

AfroCentric Group, through subsidiary Medscheme, collaborated with the biggest healthcare groups and medical scheme administrators in the country to form the CareConnect Health Information Exchange to facilitate the authorised exchange of information between hospitals, clinicians and medical aids to ensure that patients receive the best possible care faster and more cost efficiently. All this happens while protecting client confidentiality.

This is just one example of what is possible when there is a joint and deliberate effort to leverage digital advancements to broaden access to health care. Going hand in hand with virtual health care is the data that can be drawn from digital platforms. In the new health economy data analytics and data insights are a key platform to deliver the right care at the right time, at the right place and to the right person, which was a challenge during the pandemic. However, data modelling proved effective in fighting the pandemic, with the government able to use data to identify hotspots, predict waves and allocate resources where they were needed most.

The pandemic revealed one area of neglect in the new health economy: the global web of interconnected nodes for the movement of drugs, medical supplies, technology and innovation. The SA healthcare sector, supported by the government, has been increasingly focusing on solving this challenge. Key to building a sustainable supply chain has been the emphasis on localisation. It is critical that SA improves on its capacity to manufacture, package and distribute its own pharmaceutical products and medical supplies. This would serve to mitigate the risk of South Africans not being able to access much-needed medicines, or indeed vaccines, during times of crisis.

The pandemic has also reinforced the fact that there is no health without mental health, and there is now recognition that more needs to be done to look after South Africans’ mental health. This includes collaborating with government departments and non-governmental organisations to improve efficiencies and strengthen the mental health system. The country also needs to invest in research and information systems for mental health.

More transparent and lower-cost care has been accelerated by the pandemic. In a country such as SA, which has a high burden of disease, there is much value to be gained from an increased focus on preventive care as opposed to curative care. This is the future of health care, and the sector needs to foster greater collaboration to ensure these indicators work for the nation. 

• Banderker is AfroCentric Group CEO.

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