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OPINION: How technology can improve health care

A visit to a public hospital, a private one and a huge supermarket recently, got my mind concentrated on the challenges we face as a country.

On entering the private hospital, you can immediately tell that it is a place for the middle classes. The facilities, deportment and attitude of staff, as well as the ambience of the place, speak of money and class.

The public hospital was challenging, with long queues of patients sneaking in different places.

The divide between the middle classes with medical aid and those without cannot be more striking.

This is the divide we need to tackle in order to have a fairer and more equal society. It replicates itself in other spheres of life as well, such as education, housing, water, electricity and transportation.

So, where does the supermarket fit in all of this? At a supermarket, a worker told me how the till computer does not only print a receipt for the goods bought, but also records that of the stock manager and shows how many of what items are left in the store. The stock manager has no reason not to order stock on time, unless he or she is incompetent.

In this day and age of ubiquitous ICT, how come we do not use these in our health delivery systems to lessen the burden and tediousness the citizens have to endure at our public health facilities?

Why don't we employ technology to eliminate queues and the perennial shortages of medicines and other supplies in our facilities?

Is it because technology would eliminate opportunities for the crooked ones in the system to engage in some malfeasance? In a chat with a health worker in the Western Cape, she told me an impressive story of how computerised their medical dispensary system is.

"You can't collect 10 Panado tablets in our facility in George today and want to get the same in Cape Town tomorrow. Our system would deny you. We can track every tablet in our stores at the click of a button," she boasted.

According to her, their system also alerts doctors if a patient for whom they seek to prescribe medication is already on treatment and how much of it is still in the possession of that patient.

She said chronic medication for hypertension, diabetes and HIV, for instance, in the Western Cape, is computer-generated and delivered to a stable patient's nearest clinic or crèche or any community centre where the patient can collect it under the supervision of a Community Health Worker.

Door-to-door deliveries are done for the infirm and the very old.

It is also possible for stable patients on chronic medication to have it couriered to a given address every month for a fee. These stable patients need only present themselves once every six months for assessment. This arrangement has the effect of cutting queues at health facilities and making the lives of the sick that much easier.

She told me that patients from neighbouring provinces, especially the Eastern Cape, register for their chronic medication in the Western Cape and travel from there every month to collect. In addition to the long queues, the biggest issue in the Eastern Cape is the frequent shortages of medication.

Patients would go to health centres only to be told their medication is out of stock.

The big question is: why don't the Eastern Cape and other provinces computerise their systems to eliminate these inefficiencies?

In Limpopo patients queue for their files and then go and queue again at the pharmacy to get medication. As a result, the health facilities are always teaming with people shifting around in sneaking queues.

In some cases, collecting your chronic medication is a whole day's work. Why can't Limpopo deliver these medicaments to the patients as it is the case in the Western Cape?

Or why not computerise the system such that patients need only produce their ID's at the pharmacy to receive their medication?

In this way, people would queue only once. The system might also be embellished with an application that reminds patients of the day they need to report for medication or assessment.

If the adoption of technology has improved the delivery of health services in the Western Cape, why don't all other provinces follow suite?

After all, we are one people in one country. If that were to happen, we would not only improve the lives of our sick, we would also immensely lift the mood and morale of our health workers.

Suppose we were to replicate this in the delivery of learning materials in the education system and eliminate the heartbreak we experience every year! If breweries and fizzy drinks companies can deliver their merchandise to all corners of the country throughout the year, why can't the state deliver learning materials to just 28000 schools once a year? Why should a supermarket do better than the whole state?

Mangena is a former Azapo leader and cabinet member.

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