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Harnessing Technology To Improve Tuberculosis Outcomes

  • 4 min read

Dr. Phathokuhle Zondi, Clinical Lead: Unu Health

Few realise the extent of the global burden of tuberculosis (TB) or know how many people still succumb to this disease every year. The Centres for Disease Control in the United States estimates that two billion people – a quarter of the world’s population – may be infected with TB, with 10.6 million becoming ill each year. Although TB is preventable and treatable, around 3 500 people lose their lives to it every day, making up an annual mortality rate of 1.3 million people. This means that TB ranks third to only COVID-19 and HIV/Aids as the world’s most deadly infectious disease.  

These statistics are alarming and demand immediate attention from all sectors of society. It is crucial to recognise the potential of technology and digital platforms in revolutionising treatment outcomes. By harnessing the power of innovation, we can transform the way in which TB is diagnosed, treated and managed, ultimately saving lives and reducing the burden of this disease.

Equally as sobering is the fact that around 30 percent of people who become ill with TB are missed by healthcare screenings and do not get the care they need, leading to poor outcomes and an increased spread of the disease, especially in remote, rural and underserved communities. People infected with TB do not necessarily become ill but can pass on the bacteria that causes the infection to between ten and fifteen other people through coughing, sneezing or the transfer of saliva. Approximately 10% of those infected go on to develop an active form of disease at some time in their lives. 

TB in South Africa

In South Africa, the first-ever National Tuberculosis Prevalence Survey, published in 2018, found that the country is one of 30 countries with the highest prevalence of TB in the world. When adjusted for population size, it is often ranked as the country with the highest prevalence in the word. 

The power of digital healthcare has the potential to change this scenario radically. The greatest challenges we face are the low rate of diagnosis and poor access to – and compliance with – treatment. That’s where digital platforms have such a significant role to play. 

How digital can make a difference

Digital health platforms have the potential to revolutionise the fight against TB by improving early detection, enhancing treatment adherence and strengthening healthcare delivery systems. Through the integration of mobile applications, telemedicine, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data analytics, we can address the key challenges of TB diagnosis, treatment access and patient support.

Firstly, digital tools enable early detection and diagnosis of TB cases. Advanced imaging techniques, supported by AI algorithms, can swiftly identify TB-related abnormalities in medical images, facilitating prompt intervention and preventing the progression of the disease. Predictive analytics can also forecast TB outbreaks and hotspot areas, enabling healthcare authorities to take proactive measures to contain the spread of the disease.

Secondly, digital health platforms facilitate remote consultations and monitoring, which is particularly beneficial for patients in remote or underserved areas. By providing timely medical intervention and personalised support, these platforms promote treatment adherence and improve patient outcomes.

Thirdly, mobile health applications empower patients to actively participate in their care management. Through features such as medication reminders, digital health checks and access to educational resources, individuals can adhere to treatment protocols better, ultimately contributing to improved health outcomes.

In addition, digital health platforms streamline healthcare delivery by facilitating data interoperability and real-time monitoring of TB trends. Innovative technologies such as TB Check, the free service application of the South African National Department of Health, are revolutionising TB testing as they are being used to determine the risk of contracting TB and to provide guidelines on how to access testing and treatment. 

Further, applications such as One Impact, a comprehensive digital health platform, connects individuals with TB support groups, provides access to TB services and enables the reporting of difficulties in accessing care. By leveraging such platforms, national TB programmes can gain valuable insights into the needs and concerns of affected communities, leading to more responsive and effective service delivery.

TB is treatable and curable, especially when patients are diagnosed early, have access to the medication they need and can be carefully monitored throughout their treatment programme.

As we observe World TB Day on 24 March, it is encouraging to know that the integration of digital health platforms provides immense promise in transforming TB outcomes. To realise this potential, collaboration among governments, healthcare providers, technology companies and civil society organisations is essential. By prioritising investment in innovative solutions and leveraging digital technologies, we can accelerate progress towards the elimination of TB and save countless lives. It is time to harness the power of technology to combat TB and create a healthier, TB-free world for all.