It’s no secret that the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the existing inequality in South Africa, and in the case of access to healthcare, it exacerbated it.
This is according to Paul Cox, Managing Director of the Essential Group of Companies (which includes health insurance provider EssentialMED).
The latest figures from the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) estimate that the number of excess deaths in South Africa between May 2020 and March 2021 is 146,626,– a far cry from the most recent official Covid death toll of 52,196. By comparing the time trends in excess deaths, SAMRC says that between 85-95% of the unaccounted deaths were likely to be directly related to Covid and that the remaining 5-15% were probably collateral causes due to health services being overwhelmed during various waves of the pandemic or due to people being too afraid to seek healthcare for fear of contracting the virus.
Cox says: “This gap between official and unofficial Covid-related deaths highlights how many South Africans may have died in their homes from the virus, without consulting a doctor. Yet, the pandemic’s onset could have served as a catalyst to fast-track the implementation of a more human-centred approach to healthcare services that our system so desperately requires. Just as it forced bricks-and-mortar-only businesses to take the plunge into the digital world of e-commerce, in a country of 22 million smart phone users and an existing health infrastructure that is inherently broken, the opportunity for telemedicine has never been more desirable.”
Telemedicine is Human Centred
He explains that telemedicine uses information technology and e-communication to provide remote clinical services to patients. “From remote doctor consultations and diagnoses, to remote monitoring and e-prescriptions, it has the power to reach a large population in real-time, in a language they understand. The physical limitations of medical services do not apply to telemedicine, such as having to wait for hours in a queue at a clinic, or not understanding your physician due to a language barrier. While it’s true that not all South Africans are at ease with digital technology, namely the ageing population, the possibility exists to tailor solutions for different markets.
“Covid has shown that there is no place for a broad-brush approach to healthcare – the unaccounted deaths are proving this. Telemedicine provides the platform for a more efficient, multi-faceted, yet personalised approach that focuses on delivering preventative healthcare services, the ongoing treatment of illnesses, as well as after-shock management. Most importantly, it gives our most vulnerable citizens access to healthcare services at a time when they need it the most.”
Public – private partnerships are critical to the conversation.
At the outset of the pandemic, the private sector was quick to start addressing the underlying issues at stake, such as ways to get education up and running at a mass level, and how to employ technology or access to treatment.
Implemented in close to 440 clinics, clinic management and telemedicine service Healthforce.io sets up clinic nurses as a low-cost entry point into the health care system, connecting patients with nurses in real-time with an on-demand remote doctor network. Similarly, award-winning Vula Mobile was developed to assist rural healthcare workers in receiving quick and efficient specialist advice and care remotely.
“While the private sector is moving in the right direction, without public-private partnerships we can only hope to reach a small percentage of our population. Mass mobilisation is required to adopt a more human-centred approach to healthcare in South Africa, and the impetus must be driven by the Department of Health, or else we risk further increasing the gap,” concludes Cox.