With social distancing being the new normal in 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, many activities, from sermons to shopping, have gone online.

This acceleration of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is changing the way people care for themselves, communicate with their friends, families and colleagues, and even what they can realistically do from the comfort of their homes, thanks to smart devices.

This is according to Dr Riaz Motara, MD of Brandmed – of which Cipla owns a 30% stake – speaking about digital healthcare at Cipla’s Healthzone virtual conference.

Dr Motara says: “We have to look at things differently and understand the new normal by seeing technology as an enabler and not a threat.”

We are also witnessing more and more how technology plays a key role in the future-trend of holistic healthcare, and how tools like electronic data support, process facilitation and team video conferencing can enhance team function for interdisciplinary teams working to achieve this patient approach.

Healthcare is embracing technology as it adapts to accommodate current developments. State clinics are notoriously congested as there is usually a shortage of healthcare professionals, so the need exists to ensure convenient access to quality healthcare.

Rural healthcare facilities are often congested and in high demand, which puts strain on these doctors, nurses and equipment at these facilities.

These challenges mean that the healthcare industry in turn, leaves opportunity for growth in supplying the country with better accessibility to quality healthcare.

“When we talk about remote healthcare in South Africa, one needs to look at the existing technology for cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death worldwide,” says Dr Motara.

During lockdown those living with hypertension were unable to have face-to-face consultations with their healthcare providers, so it was necessary to embrace digital healthcare solutions.

Dr Motara pointed to a local example of remote digital healthcare, Kardiofit, which provides doctors with access to remotely monitor and manage their patients’ cardiovascular health. A user-friendly app was created that produces more advanced data than a regular doctor’s visits would, through gathering data daily through Bluetooth and the patient’s smartphone.

The daily data gathered through this technology has notably been used to pre-empt heart attacks in high-risk patients, as the warning signs are presented hours before the actual.

Symptoms of a heart attack can include chest pain or discomfort; feeling weak, light-headed, or faint; pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, or back; pain or discomfort in one or both arms or shoulders; and shortness of breath.9

“Not only is this a pocket-friendly and effective way of monitoring cardiovascular health, but it can also assist in managing other chronic diseases holistically, such as diabetes, asthma and cancers as they don’t occur in silos,” says CEO of Cipla South Africa, Paul Miller.

“Cipla is committed to its ethos of ‘caring for life’ and helping to solve issues arising from this unprecedented global pandemic by finding new ways to provide dignified primary healthcare to some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.”

As the Covid-19 pandemic hastens the adoption of 4IR solutions in South Africa, data-driven healthcare has become a reality, and cloud-based platforms and emerging technologies have broken down cost and access barriers.

“This shows us that, although middle- and high-income earners are the ones currently benefitting from these digital developments, this technology in fact has the potential to expand healthcare to those who haven’t been able to access it due to cost or distance. Geography will be less of a factor in future healthcare, and as technology becomes cheaper and more pervasive,” said Miller.

For instance, smartphone market penetration in South Africa increased from 81.7% in 2018 to 91.2% in 2019, attesting to increasing access to technology. Strengthening and modernising South Africa’s regulatory framework is also crucial for digital healthcare access to expand, but there have already been notable developments in this regard, such as the Protection of Personal Information (POPI) Act, 2013 (Act 4 of 2013).

Adapting to this “next normal” can help the South African healthcare system break some of the more significant barriers like collecting detailed information around disease incidence, health practices and available resources that help evaluate the efficacy of health programmes.

“Ultimately, employing technology will likely help improve the flow of information and enable healthcare providers to treat more patients efficiently,” adds Miller. “In addition, the shift in how data is generated, aggregated and used will power the industry towards outcome-based healthcare models.”