It’s difficult to imagine that less than a hundred years ago there was no such thing as antibiotics. But it was only in 1928 that Sir Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered the power of penicillin when he left a plate of bacteria out and it fell victim to mould.
Today, ongoing medical breakthrough continues to change the face of healthcare, but it’s certainly not driven by chance discovery. For years new technologies have forged a pathway for more accurate diagnosis and improved patient outcomes. And spurred on by necessity, the pandemic is accelerating progress beyond anything we’ve seen before. According to the World Health Organisation, COVID-19 has catalysed the development of more than 120 health technology innovations that have been piloted in Africa.
Because the pandemic exposed the depth of challenges facing the continent’s healthcare systems, it placed a powerful spotlight on the need for a different approach to medicine. While a revamped future in healthcare may seem far away, industry trailblazers are making significant steps in the right direction.
BroadReach’s Vantage platform is a powerful example. Vantage provides management decision-support and operational tools to decision makers in healthcare, ultimately enabling them to achieve more cost-effective and predictable health outcomes at scale. This innovative solution was perfectly positioned to aid South Africa in its response to the pandemic, allowing decision makers to rapidly upscale COVID-19 preparedness in 1,000 healthcare facilities across the country.
Long before the pandemic began, these pockets of transformation have been taking place. In fact, part of the reason why BroadReach was so effective during the pandemic is that the platform had already been used in the fight against HIV. Its digital HIV Portfolio on Management Solution helped an estimated 340,000 people access HIV treatment in KwaZulu-Natal, where the epidemic is at a peak.
Necessity is the mother of invention
Healthcare leaders like BroadReach provide us with a glimpse of where the future of healthcare in Africa is headed.
This is particularly true when it comes to innovation in the telemedicine space. It’s estimated that 400 million people on the continent have little or no access to healthcare and, for some time already, innovative healthcare providers in Africa have been drawing on mobile solutions to bridge the gap.
M’Care is one such pioneer. The Nigerian company created a mobile health assistant that helps health workers provide care to patients in low-resourced communities by boosting the capabilities of those with limited medical training. The SMS-based decision support software helps them ask questions about appropriate healthcare interventions and get real-time responses to make accurate decisions about care.
With mobile adoption in Africa accelerating, mHealth has a fundamental role to play in boosting diagnostic and treatment support in rural areas.
But mobile is not the only technology driving remote access to medical expertise. Because mixed reality technology can bridge the gap between virtual reality and physical reality, it enables a far more sophisticated level of virtual consultation, opening the door to more advanced remote healthcare support. In fact, from the preoperative discussion to guidance during the surgery itself, complicated medical procedures can now be performed using remote assistance. The HoloLens2 – a pair of mixed reality smart glasses – is already being used by top surgeons in Africa today.
For a surgery being carried out in Morocco, for example, HoloLens can be leveraged to connect with another experienced surgeon in a completely different country. One with specialist expertise in the field, so that best practices and insights can be shared in real-time.
Just recently, Professor Stephen Roche from Groote Schuur Hospital in South Africa participated in a 24-hour holographic surgery event where surgeons from around the world undertook mixed reality orthopedic operations. Using HoloLens they were able to share their real-time view of the surgery with one another, benefitting from their peers’ expertise on different clinical cases.
New tools to solve key challenges
Technology has the potential to redefine healthcare in Africa. But before we see these innovations adopted more broadly, there are key challenges to be overcome. Limited connectivity and affordability of virtual consultations remain significant barriers to adoption, as does lack of legislation around telemedicine.
And while healthcare professionals themselves are upbeat about the potential of telehealth to improve patient experience, around half don’t know how to use patient data to inform patient care. According to Philips’s Future Health Index, young professionals in South Africa are overwhelmed by the volume of data available.
Relevant data is often fragmented across providers and care teams, and there is a shortage of staff to keep up with the workload. Protecting patient data can also be a daunting prospect for overworked healthcare professionals who must ensure they comply with stringent regulations.
But advancements in technology are rapidly helping to resolve many of these challenges. Microsoft’s recently launched Cloud for Healthcare helps professionals deliver better health outcomes by making patient data truly accessible. It brings together data from disparate systems into a managed service to create a consolidated patient record. This data is then able to fuel improved patient care and clinical insights. At the same time, sensitive health data is protected, supporting patient privacy.
Still more needs to be done though before tools such as these can have a broader impact. Dr Fleming’s incredible discovery is a case in point – though he stumbled on penicillin in the late twenties, it would be the early forties before the medication was used widely. And even then, the success of antibiotics required the combined efforts of both government and industry.
In much the same way, Africa’s healthcare scene is alive with invention and discovery. But there is a massive collaborative task ahead of both the public and private sector if we hope to see true transformation take hold across the continent.