The adoption of digital solutions for data capturing in the healthcare sector will revolutionise the delivery of healthcare services and solutions; from testing, early detection and prevention to remote patient monitoring to help patients navigate the healthcare system with digital services, disease impact measurement and budget allocations.

This is according to Head of Research: Board of Healthcare Funders of Southern Africa (BHF), Charlton Murove, who was speaking ahead of the 19th Annual BHF Conference taking place in Sun City from 17 to 20 June 2018.

Data will inform disease profiling to get a better understanding of its prevalence and establish current and future costs of diseases in healthcare. In a system where you have accurate and comprehensive data, the industry can better prioritise healthcare needs. Data will identify the requirements for systems to be put in place to ensure that we address current and future healthcare challenges.

While the application of data in the medical profession is lauded, several interventions are required to ensure that we build solid foundations that will adequately support our quest to achieve the underlying vision of universal health coverage (UHC) that provides quality, equitable and affordable healthcare for all.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) require that healthcare be radically improved in the most underserved areas. A combination of big data and the Internet of things (IoT) will undoubtedly be major forces for change in the years to come, as global connectivity increases and technology flourishes.

Current systems are not geared towards providing health intelligence – there is still a big gap between the doctor’s diagnosis and the pharmacy, and fragmentation in record keeping is the region’s biggest challenge. If systems were built with health intelligence in mind, the industry would be better positioned to identify notifiable conditions quicker, for example.

A good example of the gaps in data collection is the 2017 outbreak of listeriosis: until recently, listeriosis was not a notifiable condition, which means it was not reported to the Department of Health the first time it was diagnosed. This is one of the challenges that can be addressed by the centralisation of data. If we can identify the right tools for data collection and centralisation, it will go a long way towards bridging the gaps in electronic health records (EHRs) that should be accessible to all the relevant service providers as and when needed and within the required privacy ambits.

In the age of technology, we are still manually processing claims. This cannot be so.

What needs to be done for the region’s healthcare

The industry is currently fragmented and everyone works in silos, which makes it difficult to understand patient records and reconcile patient history. Data capturing and centralisation must be taken more seriously in order to generate usable data that can aid interventions for tackling fraudulent claims, for example, and enabling early detection and containment of communicable diseases.

We must be able to pinpoint where and why funds are spent in the different healthcare areas so that we have an understanding of the population’s health needs and required interventions. Also, if such data is captured across the southern African region, we can determine what diseases patients have had when they come into the country and we go outside the country, and can adequately pick up communicable cases across countries.

Improvements in healthcare should not be perceived as being limited to the first world. Decisions must be taken by African governments to do things better and ensure that the industry is not fragmented.

Data will enable efficiencies in healthcare

Public healthcare systems across the region are buckling under pressure as they are continuing to service more people than originally envisaged. The resulting inefficiency is coupled with a myriad of other challenges such as skills shortages, fragmented systems and unconsolidated data that could have provided a clear picture of the health needs of the region’s population.

The Future Health Index, commissioned by Dutch tech company Philips, paints a bleak picture of our public healthcare system. According to the report, South Africa was ranked last among 19 nations in a global survey that measured healthcare system efficiency – the ability to deliver maximum results at the lowest possible cost. Among some of the biggest bottlenecks in the progression of healthcare in the country is data fragmentation and a lack of data to inform spend vs. health citizen needs.

The authors of the report attributed South Africa’s poor performance to average healthcare spend as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) that delivered below average health outcomes. South Africa spends 8.8% of its GDP on healthcare, just over R4 trillion a year, which places it in the mid-field amongst the 19 countries. The US spent 19.1% of its GDP on health and France 11.5%. The lowest spender was the UAE with 3.8%. There is a compelling case for improved budgetary allocation for health, and only usable data can adequately support this.

The adoption of smart applications and innovative technology will go a long way in mending the state of the public healthcare system and facilitating quality, equitable and affordable healthcare services to all.

 Looking ahead

According to the Ericsson 2016 Mobility Report, the digital transformation of the healthcare industry is enabling healthcare professionals to reimagine their work. The report states that in order for the transformation of patient applications to happen, patient data will need to be stored centrally, effectively turning hospitals into data centres and doctors into data scientists. Patients should be able to access their records through a central repository to help them manage the quality and efficiency of their care.

The report states that “New digital tools will allow hospitals to automate repetitive administrative tasks and allow their healthcare professionals to get the most from their professional training and focus on patient care. With such intense competition for healthcare talent at a global level, allowing doctors and specialists to focus on their highest-value activities – diagnosis, treatment, care – puts hospitals in a great position to attract and retain scarce skills.”

The study also forecasts that predictive analytics will be another growth area once the storage and retrieval of all this data is mastered. The benefits can be derived in mundane areas such as inventory and waste management, as well as patient care.

Without a doubt, healthcare is one sector in which the IoT ecosystem and big data analytics will play an increasingly vital role, and a number of enhancements must be made to successfully expand healthcare to the greater portion of the population.

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