Health Care in South Africa
With the ongoing ramifications of the pandemic that began in 2020, the world recognizes how much life has become integrated with digital technology. Some regions, like South Africa, have turned that growing dependency to their advantage. South Africa carries a large population, more than 30 million of whom live in poverty, according to a study finished in 2015. However, with technologies more readily available, health care in South Africa is changing for the better.

Digitization has impacted business, trade, learning, recreation and a whole slew of social aspects. In many ways, bringing a community up-to-date with 21st-century technology correlates with benefits. According to the World Bank, which actively promotes affordable broadband Internet access, the web is a tool that can help in “the delivery of essential services such as education and health care, offers increased opportunities for women’s empowerment and environmental sustainability and contributes to enhanced government transparency and accountability.”

A Continent’s Digital Coming-of-Age

Unfortunately, not every country in the world enjoys easy wi-fi access. According to statistics from 2017, a mere 22% of the whole African continent had access to the internet. Global organizations have implemented various programs over the years to offer more stable and effective wi-fi to Africa. The African Union, partnering with the World Bank Group, hopes to grant access to everyone on the continent by 2030.

Over the past two years, South Africa showed determination (and profits) in building up its digital proficiency. In 2020, South Africa witnessed an influx in online presence due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a response, in April 2020, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa gave 4G and 5G frequencies to operators to meet the increased demands.

In 2021, the e-commerce market in South Africa increased, garnering a total of $5 billion, and putting the nation’s e-commerce income above that of Iraq. Furthermore, South Africa sported a robust 68.2% of its population as internet users at the onset of 2022, having increased somewhat from a year prior. Digital updates and more wi-fi usage are even multiplying real health benefits.

Health Care in South Africa

South Africa takes the lead when it comes to the region’s medical advancements. It has the best hospitals in the southern part of the continent, yet there are still many barriers within the health care system.

According to 2019 statistics from the World Bank, there are 0.8 physicians for every 1,000 people in South Africa. In rural areas, access to health care remains inadequate. Lured by the appeal of private practice, many physicians abandon public practice. The public system relies on government subsidies and suffers from underfunding and a shortage of resources. Meanwhile, a stronger although more selective group of private physicians cater to middle- and upper-class people and are able to acquire better supplies. About 80% of doctors operate in this private sector, which means they only offer care to approximately 20% of the country’s populace.

Depending on one’s income, the fees and health care coverage vary. However, some 3,500 health institutions offer cost-free care for expectant mothers and children younger than 6. Alternative or traditional medicine is widely practiced with more than 90% of rural South Africans utilizing these services to some extent.

South Africa’s government aims to develop a national health insurance program in order to improve national health, offer more affordable health care and eliminate inequalities regarding patient treatment.

Digitizing the Health Care System

Some of the steps taken to improve health care in South Africa have less to do directly with policy and more to do with integrating up-to-date technology. Both are necessary, but new technologies will particularly focus on streamlining the health care process.

Pharmacies seek to incorporate e-commerce models. Luis Monzon, of IT News Africa, said that “These systems of quick and convenient dispensation of medicines are a boon for individuals who require chronic medicines but struggle with travel.” Thus, digitization in this sector helps those least able to help themselves.

“We’re seeing a range of innovations in areas such as medical practice management, patient health care records, telehealth and remote health care, as well as low cost but high functioning medical devices,” says Sheraan Amod, CEO of RecoMed, a South African online marketplace specializing in health care. “The future looks incredibly bright for African healthtech innovation,” Amod said to IT  News Africa.

Telehealth provider Udok, which emerged in 2018, aims to “facilitate the delivery of online doctor consultations” by “providing remote consultations directly to patients and via pharmacy clinics.” The Udok platform allows health care practitioners to consult via videoconferencing while recording a patient’s medical information in order to diagnose a patient remotely in real-time. Udok has partnered with one of South Africa’s major pharmacies, Clicks, and will be available in about 200 Clicks pharmacies across the country. Udok-based virtual consultations are also cost-effective, which increases the accessibility of health care services.

Looking Ahead

In a country where differing medical protocols and lack of physician availability upset the system, the digital era, which is steadily on the rise in South Africa, offers increased access to necessary medicines, information on symptoms and other perks. Platforms like Udok help transform the health care landscape for the better. With the prioritization of policies on the one hand and digital transformation on the other, the bright future for health care in South Africa appears to be quickly approaching.

– John Tuttle
Photo: Flickr