The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) has partnered with Jembi Health Systems NPC to launch the new SAMRC-Jembi Collaborating Centre for Digital Health Innovation (CC-DHI).

According to the SAMRC and Jembi, the CC-DHI will be responsible for initiating, driving and facilitating digital health initiatives in the country, particularly those initiated by the National Department of Health (NDoH), with a focus on digital health implementation and operations research.

During the CC-DHI’s official launch on 31 August 2018 at the SAMRC conference centre in Cape Town, President and CEO of the SAMRC, Prof Glenda Gray, noted how her organisation recognises digital health as a “hotbed of innovation and holds significant promise in contributing fundamentally to the improvement of health delivery, management and monitoring in South Africa and other low resource settings in Africa, and sees the new CC-DHI as a key enabler for this.”

“Going forward we have some exciting years ahead of us; for example we have National Health Insurance (NHI) that we have to execute to ensure a good quality health system. So what could be better than using technology, and the infrastructure and platform that technology brings to us, to deliver spectacular universal health coverage for all of us that live in South Africa,” continued Prof Gray.

Following Prof Gray’s address, the Director of the CC-DHI, Dr Chris Seebregts, who is also the Founder and CEO of Jembi, explained how over the past decade the two organisations have contributed significantly to digital health in South Africa. For example, in collaboration with the NDoH, the SAMRC, which Jembi spun out of in 2008, pioneered a number of digital health systems in the country. The systems include the electronic TB register, the Tier.Net HIV system, the open source medical record system (OpenMRS), which was developed with US partners, and more recently MomConnect.

“In the space of 10 years there has been a huge explosion of mobile technology and the use of mobiles in health, i.e. mHealth. There’s a huge amount of innovation going on in this space with different apps being developed, but not all of those are particularly useful or sustainable,” said Dr Seebregts.

To ensure useful mHealth apps can be implemented in the public health system, mHealth will be one of the initial focal areas for the CC-DHI. According to Dr Seebregts, the CC-DHI is presently developing an mHealth platform to harmonise mobile app development and data sharing without compromising patient privacy.

Dr Seebregts noted that the mHealth platform is being built to ensure health information is interoperable across mobile systems and based on an architecture that is fully supported and integrated with the Health Normative Standards Framework (HNSF). The HNSF prescribes the enterprise architecture, protocols and standards for public health information exchange.

Building on these standards, the NDoH, with support from the CC-DHI and the CSIR Meraka Institute, are developing an extension to the current HNSF to propose the inclusion of mHealth as a key component to the NDoH eHealth architecture.

“Our initial objective is really to strengthen the MRC’s participation in the national digital health research and innovation agenda, and then to provide a vehicle for facilitating technical knowledge to support effective digital health research and implementation,” said Dr Seebregts.

“The CC-DHI will provide a collaborative network of digital health innovators and research in the public and private sectors. There’s a lot of innovation going on, but we would like to be a lot more collaborative in that, and we think that this is the perfect mechanism to do that and also to position the SAMRC again as a local and international research leader in digital health,” continued Dr Seebregts.

The CC-DHI will also play a role in assisting the SAMRC with the internal evaluation of digital health projects and to develop the digital health capacity at the SAMRC.

During his presentation, Dr Seebregts made reference to a number of projects that the CC-DHI is working on, which includes supporting and maintaining MomConnect and developing a mobile app store for healthcare workers and patients.

“The vision is for the NDoH to have an app store where any validated app that’s used within the public health space can be downloaded. We also aim to develop a Digital Road to Health app, which is really extending MomConnect and supporting the first 1,000 days of life. The app will link to the centralised HIV/TB information systems as well as to the health patient registration system,” said Dr Seebregts.

“The CC-DHI will reach out and form relationships with partners from all spheres that have potential impact on digital health systems strengthening, including government, tertiary institutes, research institutes, industry and the private sector,” concluded Dr Seebregts.

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