Making healthcare accessible to all in South Africa through technology

Clare Hopping

Wednesday 19 July 2017

South Africa is facing a healthcare crisis: good-quality care is only available to the rich. This means those in outlying areas and with lower incomes are unable to be diagnosed or treated for serious health conditions. Now, tech is coming to the rescue of medical aid, closing the gap between rich and poor.

At the tail end of 2016, South Africa’s health minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, announced his commitment to ensuring the gap is closed between rich and poor when it comes to universal healthcare.

“The financing of healthcare is not dedicated to those who need it. Healthcare financing is in favour of the well-to-do. The time for that to change has arrived,” he told an audience at the opening of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Parktown, Johannesburg.

He went on to explain that levelling the playing field between rich and poor healthcare is the one way quality of life for everyone will improve.

One of the key challenges, however, is ensuring everyone has access to medical facilities. In such a vast country, this requires input from the government, the healthcare industry and tech innovators to make is a possibility.

But South Africa has no shortage of tech superstars, and some of its sharpest thinkers are developing ideas that could change the fortunes of South Africans, ensuring they have total coverage when it comes to healthcare.

South African success stories

Medici is one company ensuring everyone has access to the healthcare they need, when they need it most. Although it originally launched in the US, the medical listings and communication app is now available to those in South Africa thanks to founder and South African national Clinton Phillips.

The company partnered with Dr Michael Mol and Hello Doctor, which already service 400,000 patients in South Africa, allowing them to communicate with medical practitioners using text, call or video. Its database covers services including family physicians, paediatricians, dermatologists, dentists, mental health providers, nutritionists, dieticians and even vets, meaning patients don’t always have to visit a clinic to get the medical advice they need.

“South Africa gave me one of the most incredible foundations for life that I could have ever hoped for,” Philips says. “Launching Medici in Africa is an incredible honour. It will change millions of lives and bring access to high-quality healthcare to patients and providers alike.”

Another company trying to make it easier for patients to keep their illnesses in check in remote areas is Vitls, a “wireless connect healthcare system” that combines wearables with cloud-based data to track a patient’s condition.

The disposable devices are lightweight, small, flexible and waterproof, tracking a user’s vital information including temperature, respiration, pulse rate and sending it to the cloud, where it’s then turned into actionable insights for medical staff.

“The idea is to provide a platform that enables healthcare providers to continuously and remotely monitor a patient’s vital signs, reliably and undisturbed,” the company’s founder Werner Forster told Disrupt Africa. “This will allow nurses on-site and physicians from anywhere to receive uninterrupted data and alerts when something is out of place with a patient.”

The company has since been awarded an undisclosed six-figure amount of funding from New York-based angel investors to help get the concept off the ground and in operation in South Africa. It will help support clinical trials and gain regulatory approval.

“Our investors are big players in the BioPharma space and their experience was an important factor for us going into this deal,” Forster says. “Our team is extremely passionate about what we’re working to achieve and we work well together.”

Support for startups

Although many homegrown tech startups are managing to get their ideas off the ground, some of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies are creating an environment to mentor businesses that need a boost to bring their innovations to market.

Bayer, for example, has launched its Grants4Apps Programme in South Africa, collaborating with digital health startups in the country to offer them the support they need to make a success of their business.

“With innovation at the heart of Bayer, we fully appreciate the role that open innovation can play in the healthcare environment. This is particularly important in the African context where the challenges in healthcare differ to the rest of the world,” says Tasniem Patel, head of communications for Bayer in Southern Africa.

The scheme is already up and running, with more than 3000 ideas across 60 countries developing as a result of companies joining the programme. At the moment, there are 10 active projects running between Grants4Apps startups and Bayer.

Collaborations that are changing South African healthcare

It’s not just experienced businesses helping startups get their products to market. Other global healthcare firms are jumping on board the South African healthcare market too. Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis has joined forces with IBM and South African communications firm Vodacom to develop the Foundation for Chronic Disease Management (FCDM), which aims to come up with new ideas to connect patients with professionals so they don’t need to travel to a clinic outside their township.

“Public private partnerships, such as what we are about to embark on, are catalysts that enhance our scientific research and innovation capabilities,” Professor Richard Gordon, South African Medical Research Council’s executive director, told Bizcommunity. “These partnerships are visionary and aim to change lives in the present and future.”

It’s schemes like these that are ensuring South African firms can continue to innovate with the support system in place to get their ideas out to the people, helping citizens benefit from their research and tech implementations

The future of health tech in South Africa

Despite being a hotbed for innovation, there’s still a long way to go until South Africans are able to access appropriate healthcare without having to travel great distances.

Although the tech community is working hard to eradicate the challenges associated with a shortage of medical facilities in the country, there are other challenges that must be addressed, such as the tech skills gap, which is affecting how innovations get to market.

However, with commitment from the government to invest in STEM education and technological advances, we’re one step closer to South Africa closing the rich-and-poor gap and becoming a world leader in healthcare technologies.