Medicine Beyond Borders: Telemedicine in South Africa

Doctor in telemedicine concept pressing button
Doctor in telemedicine concept pressing button (Photo Credit: www.shutterstock.com)

By Vino Govender CM(SA), executive for product innovation and marketing at Dark Fibre Africa

Telemedicine, a term which literally means “healing at a distance”, speaks to the use of technology to overcome geographical barriers, and increase access to health care services.

This is particularly beneficial for extending medical services to communities that lack access to specialised health care services to their geographic location. These communities frequently experience situations where the intervention time from disease detection to beginning of care, affects the final result of the care itself.

As one of Africa’s largest economies, it is becoming increasingly important for South Africa to efficiently execute strategies  that serve and enhance the lives of all its citizens.

Patients in non-urban areas sometimes have to travel hundreds of kilometres to access medical facilities – often, resulting in progression of the illness or the demise of the patient. This is where technologies based on resilient and high speed data connectivity can assist significantly in reducing and even eliminating the “distance barrier” to specialised health and medical care services.

Vino Govender CM (SA) | DFA, Executive: Product Innovation and Marketing
Vino Govender CM (SA) | DFA, Executive: Product Innovation and Marketing (Photo Credit: DFA)

For example, the deployment of video solutions can easily connect patients at family health clinics to specialists in larger medical centres. Meaning that children could potentially consult a doctor whose practise is hours away, without travelling the distance.

Technological solutions can also connect clinics in remote areas to experts and information at medical schools, university sites and larger hospitals.

Dark Fibre Africa (DFA), through its open access fibre infrastructure deployment, continues to play a critical role in enabling connectivity service providers to deliver a range of high speed fixed and wireless connectivity services, upon which, specialised healthcare and medical services can be delivered to  communities that cannot access such services due to geographic location that places them beyond physical reach.

Today, telemedicine enables an increasingly wide range of services over much longer distances, including:

  • Real-time patient consultations;
  • Remote monitoring of patients’ vital signs and conditions;
  • The storing and forwarding of critical health information for analysis and diagnosis
  • The provision of specialised services over long distances
  • The wide availability of health information to patients and care givers.

There are a few mobile applications in the market today that connect general healthcare workers directly with specialists in South Africa.

Through these apps, health professionals can make referrals, get advice, find information, and undertake diagnostic tests, all through their mobile phone. This results in more accurate diagnoses and appropriate referrals, reducing inefficiencies in current systems.

Additionally, specialists are able to review a patient’s information, including test results and photographs, before the patient arrives at the referred hospital. This means doctors can prioritise urgent cases and prepare for their arrival ahead of time.

Innovations such as IoT sensors, smart pill bottles, and asset management devices are now being used to monitor the ‘cold chain’ delivery of vaccines, remind chronic patients when to take medication and  monitoring the health status as well as security of critical medical equipment that are deployed at remote sites.

These and other advancements, however, are ultimately dependent on telemedicine service providers and consumers having access to robust internet connectivity.

A ubiquitous high-speed connectivity ecosystem enables health departments and health care service providers to effectively and efficiently extend specialised health and medical care services to a broader reach of South Africans.

In addition to this, service delivery can be improved, the costs to extend services can be reduced and a vastly decreased diagnosis and treatment to result time can be achieved.

The full potential of telemedicine cannot be realized without the continued deployment and adoption of advanced and high speed connectivity technologies, such as fibre, to increase the availability and access of services to non-urban areas.

At DFA, we have seen the critical and pivotal role fibre plays in accelerating service delivery. In 2014 we connected 1181 establishments and 3966 end points.

In 2015 alone those figures almost doubled and tripled respectively, with 2046 buildings and 11 706 end points being connected.

Our network footprint reaches a significant number  of specialised health and medical care providers, enabling them to reach a broader number of patients through digital platforms and technologies – we provide an enabling technology and connectivity foundation for the accelerated deployment of Telemedicine in South Africa.

Through our wholly owned subsidiary, SqwidNet, we are also deploying the Sigfox IoT network nationally, which can be used to deliver innovative solutions and services to the health and medical care sector.

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