World Aids Day is today (1 December) and South Africa is once again focusing on one of its biggest challenges.

While many strategies are being pursued to manage the HIV pandemic, one of the major barriers to success is that too many South Africans struggle to access traditional healthcare services due to factors either psychological/social (stigma, fear) or practical (time, location).

Services available through digital channels have been shown to increase convenience and privacy and to increase uptake/access in other industries (like mobile banking) but have been slow to be adopted in health.

To address this, South African digital health start-up Aviro has launched a ground-breaking new digitally-enabled service.

Aviro Pocket Clinic has already been successfully used by more than 50 000 people since its soft launch last year and has received an endorsement by the National Department of Health based on its success.

Incorporating digital to allow patients to privately, conveniently and confidently manage their own care while still being connected to health providers is an entirely new approach that can transform the diagnosis and management of HIV and Aids.

Despite having the world’s largest ARV programme with free treatment to all, recent statistics show that South Africa’s HIV infection rate is, in fact, rising and the country continues to have the highest number of people living with HIV and Aids in the world. Too many South Africans were already not finding it easy enough to access testing and treatment, and this has further deteriorated during the COVID-19 pandemic when few wanted to visit health facilities. It is a pressing challenge to provide better (quick and easy) access to healthcare services for everyone.

Enter Aviro Pocket Clinic with its innovative solution. Built with accessibility as the top priority, this empathetic multi-language digital service walks patients through screening and counselling on their own, including assisting with taking appropriate and practical next steps, for things like a personal test for HIV, moving through a diabetes screening and counselling, or one day even self-screening for Covid-19.

“The reality faced by the healthcare system is that it is not currently set up to provide interventions that enable healthcare workers to support patients with things like remote self-testing and giving referrals to only those that need clinical care,” says Aviro Health CEO, Dr Musaed Abrahams. “We are supporting health providers with an eHealth solution that’s been specifically developed to provide efficient, user-friendly and equitable access to healthcare.

“This is a complete patient self-care solution that will dramatically improve the capacity of the health system to manage patients and their data without a health worker present, while also ensuring the availability of information to aid efficient and effective self-care. This will be transformative for the many people in Africa who have struggled to gain access to quality healthcare.”

The service is free to patients and is made available through partnerships with health providers in both the public sector (DOHs, NGOs) and in the private sector (insurers, pharmacies) who see value in more efficient/effective care from patients managing more of their own care, while still ensuring that there is epidemiological data and in-person support as needed.

To help health workers to integrate Aviro Pocket Clinic into their care delivery, Aviro provides health staff with training, communication materials, and simple digital tools that help them to initiate, monitor, track and support their patients, while the automated platform handles most of the interactions with the patient.

For the patient, Aviro Pocket Clinic is accessed either online at home (through a WhatsApp chatbot or free website) or, if the user doesn’t have a mobile device (or privacy) at home, via tablet-equipped booths at key locations like clinics or pharmacies.

Aviro Pocket Clinic takes them on a step-by-step journey through their self-care options (for example with self-screening for diseases at home or in the booth, delivery of medicine/diagnostics, or automated counselling) and links them to the in-person digital services they require.

The service provides intuitive and customised multi-language support built with extensive user engagement and supported by AI-enabled interactions, but, where the automated service falls short, consultations with healthcare professionals are arranged.

“During our soft launch, we saw that the service is already delivering very positive results. For example, in KZN we found that 7.5% of testers using the service tested positive for HIV and started on ARVs, compared to 2,5% in traditional clinic-based testing,” says Aviro chief operating officer and co-founder Luke Shankland.

“In a population as vulnerable as ours, that’s a huge stride in accessibility of testing, diagnosis and treatment, and we are driven to scale it up to reach 10-million people in sub-Saharan Africa in the next five years.”

Aviro Pocket Clinic has been validated by three leading universities: Johns Hopkins, Wits and UCT.