Managing Director at eStrategies, Chris Hull, discusses the upcoming eStrategies event, which will take place in Cape Town from 23 to 24 November 2015, and the importance of strategically developing eHealth in Africa.

Tell us about your background and how your interest in eHealth developed, especially within an African context.

I started my career in marketing and from the outset I was fascinated by evangelists and thought leaders who seemed able to communicate so eloquently. From early on I studied this art of effective communication and how it can be used to generate good business, educate, or change things for the good. It became clear to me that those who lead large corporations, politicians and industry leaders generally utilise their gift of powerful communication, but the same time, I believe they should be subjected to careful scrutiny to ensure that there is some measure of accountability and that ultimately, what they are saying has a positive impact on society. Simply, if a company is only interested in selling, then we should demand more, and if government services don’t deliver, we should make sure they do.

Living in the UK with the National Health Service, my wife, who is a General Practice nurse, and I often talk about how privileged we are. We have four children, two sets of twins, so health and wellbeing are important to us and something we try not to take for granted. What is clear is that the demands on the health service are ever increasing but the quality that is delivered remains an incredible testimony to progress in the modern world.

I believe that everyone deserves this same support and security. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for millions of people around the world – many of which are in Africa. But technology has the power to change that.

So, when I think of eHealth I imagine a future that is very different from today. Of course, eHealth is a broad term, which combines technology, connectivity and health information, with efficiency, care and the better delivery of health services – but I also like to see eHealth as a great enabler for giving people the opportunity to take personal responsibility for their own health, to give us all the knowledge and the power to influence our own health and wellbeing.

In Africa, this is a huge challenge on many levels, but by bringing together those eloquent communicators from the industries, public sectors and institutions with the responsibility to act, then it is something I would like to help bring about.

This year marks the tenth year anniversary since the first eStrategies event took place in Prague. How has the event developed over the years, and how and why has Africa become the focal point?

We started eStrategies in Eastern Europe at the start of the century, primarily to assist the 10 new countries joining the EC to develop and deploy many of the advanced government services technology that was being used in the rest of Europe, America and other parts of the world. As a business, it made sense to bring those governments into contact with technology providers and help them work it out. As a result, many did, particularly those without the legacy systems that were holding so many back elsewhere and the benefits to health services were quickly realised.

We soon realised that in terms of health, the need in Africa was obvious and, although the challenges were greater, there was still an opportunity for the industry to deliver what was needed if they could meet with the right people.

In Europe, there is no doubt about the benefits of eHealth. It is a part of everyday life. In Africa it’s different, but I hope eStrategies is beginning to change that. In 2008 at an eStrategies event, Dr Stella Anganwe, from WHO said: “Once the politician understands it, he makes it happen. If he doesn’t understand it, he doesn’t make it happen. We have to mobilise, inform and educate our policy-makers for them to dedicate funding to eHealth.” So there you have it – the role of the eloquent communicator influencing things for the good of society to help bring about positive change.

Delivering better healthcare is not just about finding the money. Solutions need to be sustainable and change management needs to be a key principle in a rapidly evolving environment. That means many different stakeholders need to be involved in the development process. Africa has the most to gain from a positive debate about eHealth and the impact that is possible if all these stakeholders work together towards a collective vision.

What were the key take-aways from last year’s event and how have they influenced this year’s programme?

The central theme of the eStrategies Forum 2014 was Social and Economic Transformation, with the development of improved health provision at the core of many of the discussions that will deliver it, particularly in terms technology implementation. The health sector in African countries lags behind most other public services in terms of ICT development, so the purpose of the event in 2014 was to demonstrate how it can catch up through the co-design of solutions and by establishing partnerships. It has been a theme at the core of all eStrategies events, where partnerships have developed over the years that are now getting things done.

The 2014 eStrategies discussions centred on how government should be used as the key vehicle for driving change through strategies co-designed with industry and all stakeholders. The notion that national leadership is critical for success led directly to this year’s event being hosted by the Deputy Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services. She is seen as a driving force for the planned improvements to connectivity throughout South Africa and has helped shape the agenda for planning how this can be achieved at this year’s eStrategies event.

In line with the eStrategies transformational argument, which embraces co-designing solutions, the event also highlighted the need for the eStrategies group of public and private sector stakeholders to continue to work together and embrace innovation and build people capability in an effort to drive the eHealth agenda.

eStrategies is always seeking to innovate and develop this event into something more than a debating chamber that has no real impact in the real world. As such, we aim to define a set of coherent activities based on the round table discussions with a series of rapporteurs’ statement that identified clear recommendations and laid out specific action points. Successes were also highlighted; in particular the positive work of the Western Cape demonstrated a key lesson of Co-Design between public and private. The recommendations and proposed follow-ups for each round table were published and, for the most part, achieved. This process of developing concrete outcomes from the event has been further refined for this year – to include closer monitoring of agreed actions over the year until the 2016 event.

Another key outcome of the event was the need for effective governance and controls and this will form part of the discussion this year, when the need for the right processes to be in place and effective structures defined will be core to the eHealth debate. Often, it was concluded in 2014, the provinces are going it alone, while a more effective national strategy in place will lead to better results.

2015 will also embrace the notion that things are changing in the world of eHealth all the time. While last year’s efforts were focussed on interoperability, things have shifted towards the opportunities offered by cloud, the Internet of Things and the need for improved connectivity. It is important to continue to revisit strategies and plans to ensure they are still relevant.

Last year’s eStrategies event brought key eHealth leaders to the table. Can you give us a hint of who is expected to lead this year’s round tables and what topics they’ll cover?

The event will be opened by The Deputy Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services, her involvement has helped us define the topics for debate and bring the right people to the table. She will also chair a round table and be involved the preparation of the follow-up document that will define what action should be taken over the next year and who should and could be involved.

Other panel attendees include: Chief Operations Officer at the National Department of Health, Dr Gail Andrews;  Chief Researcher at the CSIR Meraka Institute, Professor Paula Kotze; Director of Information Management at the Western Cape Department of Health, Ian de Vega; Physician Executive at InterSystems, Dr Gene Elliott; Executive Director at Health Systems Technologies, Mr Gerrit Henning; CEO at the eHealth Foundation, Dr Louis Rossouw; and Director at MRC-PATH Global Health Innovator Accelerator, Professor Tony Bunn. They will also be debating the sharing of telecommunications platforms for the development and implementation of all eServices.

CEO at SITA, Dr Setumo Mohapi, will also be at the event, his input will be crucial in outlining the role of the private sector in South Africa’s National e-Strategy.

Large ICT enterprises will also be present where they’ll able to bring their international expertise in dealing with cyber-crimes and cyber threats to the table. Big data management needs greater understanding, particularly within the health environment.

Increasing spectrum for broadband is another key focus and a round table devoted to this will be Chaired by CEO at ICASA, Pakamile Pongwana. Connectivity impacts all government services, so the rapid and cost-effective rollout of broadband is one of the government’s main priorities. I would like to see the eHealth context form part of this discussion as well.

What are the most pressing issues that need to be addressed to propel the uptake of eHealth going forward?

People. Visionary leaders from the public and private sectors and academia need to educate the masses. Where marketers of consumer goods are successful in changing behaviour and lifestyle, so, the eHealth sector needs to advocate the benefits of improved citizen healthcare through intelligent strategic application of ICTs. For everybody to benefit, the user experience needs to be beyond expectation.  Here I see countrywide connectivity as the key.

What would you like to see come out of this year’s event?

Following the 2015 event I’d like to see positivity leading to a greater sense of collective vision, and trust and understanding leading to measured implementation.

eStrategies Africa will be taking place at Vineyard Hotel and Spa in Cape Town from 23 to 24 November. For more information, visit www.estrategies.co.za.

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