Along with a need to fast-track sophisticated education, healthcare is arguably one of the most important and urgent challenges currently facing South Africa. 

While facilities at the top end of the scale appear to rival the best available in the world, resources throughout most of the country are woefully inadequate to cope with, among other things: poverty, poor infrastrucuture and a worsening HIV/AIDS pandemic, along with all its related illnesses.
Perhaps the most pressing need in the struggling healthcare sector is the recruitment of qualified caregivers, along with the means to keep them content enough not to stray into the lucrative private sector.
It may not be the whole answer, but technology can certainly be employed to make it more efficient for professionals to assist larger numbers of people, while smoothing the administrative processes to make healthcare that much more accessible for more -people.
Anyone who has been a user of public healthcare facilities will attest to the fact that it’s not so much the quality of the care that’s lacking (which is good more often then not), but the lengthy, frustrating and possibly life-threatening paper chase that has to be endured beforehand.
On a recent visit to one of the country’s major hospitals, on a quiet Saturday morning with no more than eight other patients in the queue, my colleague spent an agonising four hours before seeing a healthcare professional.
Thereafter, the quality of care was unparalleled: emergency surgery was still in time to save her life; doctors and nurses alike were skilled and sympathetic; and processes in the ward appeared to run smoothly.
IT could certainly be effectively employed in reducing that four hours (presumably significantly longer during “peak” hours) spent on administration matters and help to speed access to life-saving healthcare.
That’s the situation in a well-resourced city hospital. In rural South Africa the appropriate professional (in our case, a maxillo-facial surgeon) would probably not be available – in many clinics a nursing sister sees all patients and refers those beyond her ken to larger centres.
Once again, IT could play a huge role in giving patients access to the right specialists via an electronic link. In extreme cases, he could even talk the healthcare professional on the ground through an emergency procedure.
There are moves afoot to include IT and digital healthcare into new initiatives in South Africa and already a couple of pilots have proved they can be effective. More importantly, these concepts are in use and saving lives in other parts of the world.
“While the concept of digital healthcare as an IT platform is still in its infancy, there are a number of success stories that prove its value to the public and private health authorities,” says Dr Greg Cline, business development manager at Intel in South Africa. “One of the key technologies driving this platform is wireless communications.”
He adds: “From the management of patient data and healthcare information to communicating in realtime with the various departments within the healthcare infrastructure, wireless technology is breaking down many of the traditional barriers and enabling health workers to work faster and more efficiently to the benefit of not only the hospitals and clinics in which they operate but also to the patients themselves.”
Cline cites the example of the Asklepios Clinic in Barmbek, Germany with its Future Hospital programme.
In co-operation with Intel, the programme aimed to improve the quality of medical care through an IT-based optimisation of communications processes; roll out technological and procedural infrastructure to facilitate the building of a comprehensive and integrated healthcare network; and increase efficiencies.
“One of the features of the programme was the introduction of a wireless communications network that could link various devices such as notebook PCs and PDAs. This would enable doctors and nurses to communicate with each other as well as hospital management and provide instant access to critical patient information and diagnostic data.
“Mobile ECGs installed in ambulances could also transmit data to the hospital’s ER while en route, allowing staff to better prepare and co-ordinate resources prior to the patient’s arrival.”
The clinic also introduced a radio frequency identification (RFID) system to handle logistics, such as allocation of medical equipment and patient tracking more efficiently.
Tablet PCs, equipped with smartcards to control authentication and security, provide medical staff with constant access the clinic information system (CIS) and other clinical data while visiting patients anywhere.
“Another example of wireless technology in the healthcare environment is the implementation of a VoIP system in a hospital in Taiwan. Integrating the facilities legacy PABX system, the solution helped to reduce the cost of communications between staff and departments,” says Cline.
“A soft interface phone was developed specifically for the staff’s notebooks, tablet PCs and PDAs to allow for efficient communications anywhere within the hospital.”
He also maintains that wireless technologies such as WiMax, in which Intel is actively involved, can be deployed by hospitals to create a cost-effective, flexible and fast wireless networking infrastructure.
Such a solution was developed for the Alfred Hospital in Australia, offering the benefits of scalability and high bandwidth that were lacking in the facilities original line-of-sight and fibre-based network.
“South Africa would benefit greatly from a move to a digital health platform. Its current environment of isolated healthcare facilities and legacy systems is not sustainable and this ultimately affects not only the industry’s ability to manage itself effectively and operate efficiently but also the patient’s right to proper healthcare.
“Intel’s expertise and successes in other countries will translate easily to the local context and enable both government and private healthcare providers to develop usage models that reduce costs while at the same time enhancing patient care.”