The inaugural Digital Health Conference brought together an array of digital health academics, entrepreneurs and startups from across the country to present on and discuss the latest eHealth trends affecting the South African healthcare industry.

The conference, which took place at the Cape Town International Convention Center (CTICC) on 2nd October 2018, was hosted in collaboration between the University of Cape Town’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Digital Health (Pty) Ltd.

During the day speakers and delegates shared ideas on how to use data to improve service delivery and planning, the importance of government-backed interventions and programmes to ensure sustainability, and the role of technology in making healthcare more affordable and accessible. The conference programme also provided examples of successful digital health startups and their lessons learned in staying afloat in this challenging sector that’s fraught with government enforced restrictions and red-tape.

Government wants digital health innovation

During her opening address, the Western Cape (WC) Minister of Health, Dr Nomafrench Mbombo, highlighted the importance of national digital health interventions, such as MomConnect and the Essential Medical Lists Guide app, in ensuring quality healthcare for all South Africans. She then went on to explain how the WC health system has implemented a number of cutting-edge digital interventions, which forms part of their IT vision strategy. For example the Catch and Match mHealth initiative that facilities door-to-door health promotion and support through the use of community health workers (CHWs), and the electronic Continuity of Care Record (eCCR) that enables data sharing between clinicians covering patient diagnoses, future treatment plans, prescribed medicine, and much more.

“Service needs to drive IT priority; IT should encourage patients and the community to take responsibility for their health by creating awareness and reminding them about medical check-ups and to collect their medicine,” said Minister Mbombo.

“The success of Universal Healthcare Coverage (UHC) relies on public private partnerships (PPPs) and digital health. Conferences such as this one provide an important platform where we can get feedback on the work we are doing to plan more effectively for the future,” continued Minister Mbombo.

Disrupting the healthcare space

The Digital Health Conference provided an important platform for some of South Africa’s most successful young digital health entrepreneurs to discuss how startups are disrupting healthcare.

Founder of Iyeza Health, Sizwe Nzima, attributed the successful growth of his business to implementing a digital health management system. Nzima started his bicycle courier company after his grandmother inspired him to deliver chronic medication from health clinics in Khayelitsha to patients’ homes.  By charging R20 per delivery, Nzima was able to establish a profitable company by delivering chronic medication within a 6km radius. He has since grown his company to include a fleet of delivery personnel who have basic pharmaceutical knowledge to ensure their customers adhere to their medication.

“I was able to grow my business by digitising the logistic management system. Through the rider app, we can do things like register patients, track medicine collection and timestamp when the medicine is dropped off at the patient’s house. The riders are also equipped to remind our customers via SMS when their next medical check-up is due,” said Nzima.

Founder and CEO of RecoMed, Sheraan Amod, followed Nzima’s presentation by talking about his approach to achieving sustainability and success. “I often say that RecoMed is not a disrupter, it’s an enabler. Our platform enables healthcare consumers to make a doctor’s appointment 24/7, and on the doctor’s side it streamlines their booking process which is known for being admin-heavy,” said Amod.

Amod went on to explain how RecoMed is the largest and fastest growing health booking platform and marketplace in South Africa that allows patients to find and book appointments with healthcare providers. The platform has grown to become the leading industry solution, adopted by the likes of Clicks, Discovery, Healthbridge and Medicross.

Although it hasn’t been an easy journey, Amod was confident in RecoMed’s continual year-on-year growth and believes it’s only a matter of time until they expand outside of South Africa to connect international healthcare consumers to nearby and relevant medical providers.

Support is available

It’s common knowledge that financial investment is vital for the longevity of any startup; but just as important is a robust ecosystem to support the startup’s maturation and growth. Cluster Manager: Cape Health Technology Park at Wesgro, Mandi Bell; Head: Sector, Investment & Trade at City of Cape Town, Faith Kolala; and Head: Technology Innovation Programmes at Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), Sarusha Pillay each presented on the work their organisations are doing to support the digital health ecosystem.

“Wesgro exists to support businesses and unlock challenges. We offer a research service that startups can use to better understand the market, and we also aim to connect people to markets – both locally and abroad,” said Bell.

Koala added that while the City of Cape Town doesn’t offer financial support to startups, they provide access to an invaluable network of people and business which startups can tap into to foster talent and ideas. Pillay, on the other hand, explained how TIA offers both financial and non-financial support to startups engaged in technology development; from proof of concept to the pre commercialisation.

Private sector innovation

While digital health startups are future orientated, it’s important to recognise the innovative digital health projects that established companies are spearheading.

During the conference, Head of Discovery Healthcare Services, Ana Endres, provided an overview of how South Africa’s most popular medical aid scheme is leading digital health innovation in the private sector. Endres explained how innovation is driven by the need to overcome challenges facing the local healthcare industry, most notably the high burden of disease, expensive treatments and imported medical technology and fraud.

“Technology is also all about empowering the healthcare consumer to take care of their own health. Take for example Discovery’s Vitality programme which rewards our clients for behavioural change. Our data shows that the more engaged people are the lower their medical claims rate is; the higher engagement they have with their health also directly correlates with shorter hospital stays and reduced mortality,” said Endres.

As part of Discovery’s Vitality programme, clients that qualify are able to purchase a subsided Apple Watch to further motivate them to track their activity and achieve personalised health goals. Endres also referenced Discovery’s HealthID, their electronic patient record (EHR), and a number of other digital health projects that they are investing in, such as Health Tap’s Dr AI and a personalised Discovery Health app store.

Positive outlook

As the Digital Health Conference demonstrated, South Africa is ripe with innovation. Young and enthusiastic entrepreneurs have already started to make a name for themselves nationally, and it seems that there’s no stopping the powerhouse that is Discovery Health who has already entered overseas markets and has been globally recognised for their innovative rewards programme.

Going forward we look forward to keeping an eye on local eHealth innovation and reporting on how it’s making a difference to healthcare service delivery and quality.

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