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Digital Tools Drive Wider Healthcare Access In South Africa

  • 5 min read

Damian McHugh, Executive Head: Momentum Health Solutions

In a digital world where we order everything from food to groceries and fashion through an app, healthcare services have equally progressed to the point where our members can now consult a qualified doctor from the comfort of their home. 

It has been impressive to see the expansion of our free medical advice service, available 24/7, into virtual consultations where a doctor can diagnose conditions, prescribe certain medications, and email the prescription to the member’s pharmacy for delivery or collection – seamless treatment for someone who previously would have had to find a way of getting to a doctor to spend a considerable amount of time waiting to be seen. Following this traditional process has evidently resulted in massive delays and over congestion in clinics across the country. 

Just like it has become the norm for healthcare consumers to expect that they can submit claims or access their membership card digitally, it is likely to become their expectation that they are granted digital access to a qualified doctor from anywhere in the country. If you consider the benefit this functionality holds for members in remote locations, it is a trend that takes private healthcare forward exponentially. An additional consideration is that digitising healthcare prevents the unnecessary spread of disease, making treatment more convenient for a person feeling considerably ill. This digital approach to healthcare services is one worth capitalising for this very reason. 

Digital technology can help leapfrog challenges surrounding access to care in countries like South Africa, where large segments of the population cannot afford the transport needed to get to clinics or healthcare facilities. Video and telephonic consultations can solve these challenges, not only by improving access to quality healthcare, but also by helping lower the cost of care so that more healthcare can be delivered to more South Africans for less. 

Our digital telehealth platform has also been used to provide tele-triage services to three community healthcare centres (CHCs), particularly during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Western Cape and Gauteng – Delft CHC and Symphony Way CHC in Cape Town, and KT Motubatse in Soshanguve. In so doing it was possible to alleviate the burden on the country’s public healthcare system that was in dire straits due to the pandemic by eliminating long queues and reducing excessive patient loads at clinics.

The service uses a telehealth system to triage patients and alleviate unnecessary clinic visits; provide medical advice and e-prescriptions for over-the-counter medicine; and increase access to quality healthcare services in the most convenient way. 

Since the introduction of the Hello Doctor services and ambassadors at the facilities in August 2022, 40 percent of all calls received were non-referrals, which translates to less visits to already constrained facilities. Of the total engagements, 10 percent were referred to a pharmacy for over-the-counter medications and 15.5 percent were advised to return to the clinic if symptoms persisted. The results highlight the combined power of digital and public-private partnerships to provide care to more South Africans in the least amount of time, at a fraction of the cost.

Growth of the service and other digital platforms and capabilities further illustrates the potential to effectively use digital platforms and devices, including wearables, to provide medical and health and wellness advice. Health and wellness data is now more readily available than ever before, and digital apps and devices are delivering health to people’s fingertips by empowering them to manage their own health and wellbeing. 

These digital platforms and wearables measure individual’s health markers, providing them with hyper-personalised information, advice, and cues that will help people on their health journeys. The digital fitness and wellbeing segment continues to grow rapidly, with revenue expected to reach $356.8 million in 2022 and grow at an annual rate of 11.4 percent to reach $612.7 million in 2027 – indicating the ever-increasing uptake of digital capabilities in healthcare.

A concerted and collective effort to accelerate digital adoption

Digital technology’s capabilities extend beyond improving access to care and personalised medical and health and wellness advice. With the advent and growth of digital platforms to enable transacting, it is possible for individuals and medical schemes to manage the funding, administration, and servicing of healthcare online. 

Medical schemes can, for example, process claims, and both individuals and medical aids can manage authorisations for procedures. Digital platforms can also facilitate the onboarding of clients, and enable self-servicing around chronic condition management, care navigation, and digital benefits to make the management of health easier and more convenient. 

Though digital technology’s potential to make healthcare more accessible and affordable is well-known, there are challenges in South Africa that hinders more rapid adoption. The availability of technology and lack of internet access in many areas, along with the ongoing rolling blackouts is preventing more widespread use of digital healthcare capabilities. Legislation is also behind the curve. As an example, the Medical Schemes Act was passed in 1998 and needs to be updated to ensure that it is meeting modern demands and addressing key challenges to better enable digital health. 

There must be a concerted and collective effort to address these challenges and accelerate the use of digital capabilities that will provide more healthcare to more South Africans. 

The good news is that the healthcare industry, both private and public, has demonstrated that it is reviewing and taking into consideration how technology can facilitate the future of healthcare, while individuals are showing a willingness to embrace technology to manage their health. With the solid foundation created, our belief is that we will continue to see the positive impact as the use of digital tools in healthcare grows.