As healthcare organisations across South Africa scramble to cope with huge surges in patient numbers in the wake of the third wave of COVID-19, it is clear the virus makes no exemptions in its attack. Our economy has been hit hard and almost every sector has faced disruption, with many pushed to breaking point.
By Mandy Duncan, country manager: South Africa at Aruba
During peaks healthcare organisations struggle with extreme surges of patients, working round the clock to care for both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients, managing safety practices such as social distancing and PPE, and delivering new virus tracking systems. Undoubtedly, this has taken its toll on the people behind the masks in ways we cannot imagine. But it has also brought with it a myriad of knock-on challenges for healthcare organisations – not least a momentous data-hangover in the wake of radically accelerated digital transformation.
Covid-19 the catalyst
Don’t get me wrong, the appetite for digital transformation in healthcare was rumbling away long before Covid-19. We were already seeing promising signs of uptake and only last year the sector was among the furthest ahead in its adoption of advanced technologies – our research told us that around three quarters of global healthcare IT leaders had started to implement trials or applications in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and machine learning. Despite this, it’s fair to say that the pandemic has spurred a profound acceleration that’s thrown the sector into a digital revolution.
Implementing all these new technologies is a lot to deal with, but when we team it with the fact that healthcare was already one of the sectors struggling most with the data that digital technologies produce, sirens start sounding. According to Philips’s Future Health Index, young professionals in South Africa are overwhelmed by the volume of data available. While healthcare professionals themselves are upbeat about the potential of telehealth to improve patient experience, around half don’t know how to use patient data to inform patient care.
Digital slowdown threat
So, why does all this matter? The harsh reality is that if healthcare organisations are unable to efficiently manage the data they are generating, the entire sector will face a major digital slowdown. The impact of this is exponential.
Think about it, technology has been at the core of some of the most important interventions to combat the virus – from how we tracked its spread, to how we studied it. In addition, we must remember that digital healthcare has no boundaries: it lives at home, in the office, on the phones and wearables that we carry around with us. The volumes of data generated by medical devices, apps and real-time monitoring systems are unimaginably vast.
This is exciting and concerning at the same time. The possibilities that could be brought about from further digital transformation are endless, but its momentum is under threat. IT leaders in healthcare feel this more than anyone and understand the consequences of a data mismanagement. At best, it could threaten their competitive advantage and frustrate employees and patients, but at worst, it could make their organisations vulnerable to cyberattacks and grinding to a standstill.
Reaching the Edge
To avoid digital slowdown, healthcare organisations must establish a network that effectively gets a handle on all this data: it needs to be processed efficiently, analysed intelligently and above all, stored securely. As with most things, this becomes more manageable when we break it down into three core steps:
Step 1: Process data efficiently
In order to process data efficiently – companies must follow it to the Edge of the network, capturing it in real-time at its source versus transferring it back to a centralised hub. Real-time decisions are often critical in healthcare, particularly hospitals, and even a sub-millisecond delay can undermine a system’s efficiency. Furthermore, real-time data also enables cost and energy reductions by utilising intelligent tools such as sensors that automatically switch entire systems on or off when needed.
The benefits are endless, and the healthcare sector knows it. Our research showed that 86% of South African health IT leaders identified the need to implement integrated systems to handle data at the Edge of the network as urgent, 71% are already using or trialling Edge technologies and 74% are delivering new outcomes as a result.
Step 2: Analyse data intelligently
Of course, capturing the data is one thing, but acting on it is something else entirely. That’s where AI and automation comes in.
Even before the pandemic more than three quarters (79%) of South African healthcare professionals believe that AI has the ability to improve patient care in other ways in the future. We are already seeing a growing role of AI in diagnosis, patient care and pharmaceutical development.
For example, it plays a fundamental role in remote monitoring systems that prompt people to take pre-emptive action to avoid illness. It can also be used to support network troubleshooting, instinctively identifying issues and presenting resolutions at the push of a button. Rather than spending hours manually managing problems, IT teams are therefore free to innovate and utilise data for further digital transformation.
Step 3: Storing data securely
The evolution of digital transformation in healthcare relies on people trusting that their data is safe and being used for their benefit. And yet, the growing use of IoT and connective devices poses increased risk for healthcare organisations. Coupled with increased cyberattacks fuelled by the pandemic, there is a critical need to lock down data enough to reassure users without freezing further digital transformation.
A Zero Trust approach to security is part of the answer, but network visibility and device identification also becomes key. By taking a centralised view of networks and giving IT teams the ability to grant differentiated levels of data access according to device or user group, healthcare organisations can secure their data without hindering digital evolution.
Without doubt, the pandemic massively accelerated the pace of the local healthcare sector’s digital transformation. However, now the digital door has been flung wide open we need to keep it so. With the right combination of support, infrastructure and next-generation technologies, healthcare organisations across South Africa can successfully maintain their drive towards a digital future.