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With an estimated 2.77 billion users worldwide, the social media phenomenon has taken the world by storm. In South Africa, almost half the population uses the internet, including 8 million Twitter users and 16 million Facebook users. This digital revolution has unlocked enormous opportunities for the creation of online communities for largescale engagement around often complex topics like the management of health conditions.
Enter the ‘e-Patient’, a term describing individuals who are proactive in their health and health care decisions.
According to Vanessa Carter, a Stanford University Medicine X e-Patient Scholar and speaker at the upcoming Africa Health Digital Health Conference, e-Patients are people that use digital resources such as the web, smartphones or other wearables to educate themselves about their condition and navigate the health system to track and manage their health.
“In the age of consumerism, many e-patients, in managing their health, exhibit behaviours similar to that of people who research reviews before making online purchases, although the concept of an e-Patient goes beyond that” says Carter.
A study conducted by the Office for National Statistics in the UK in 2018 found that 59% of women and 50% of men looked for health-related information online. In the US, 56% of people used websites and 46% used mobile phones to manage their health in 2018, according to Accenture Consulting’s 2018 Consumer Survey on Digital Health.
While there are no comprehensive statistics available for South Africa, Carter says the evolution of online resources and engagement has come a long way to empower patients. “Digital resources in the 21st-Century are going beyond the web and will include wearables and mobile applications that capture health data.”
Involvement of governments is key to driving the use of digital technology to improve the health of its citizens. E-health tech like electronic medical records, telemedicine and mobile electronic systems have been successfully used to improve health outcomes and empower populations. South Africa, however, has previously struggled to migrate traditional district health information systems to an electronic storage system that can be accessed by any health facility or practitioner. This has caused it to be ranked poorly in the global e-Health maturity index.
Government initiatives to digitise healthcare have been evident in applications like MomConnect, a cell-phone based app that provides online resources to pregnant women. Since its creation, it has gained over 1.7 million users in over 95% of public health facilities to become one of the largest initiatives of its kind globally. NurseConnect is an extension of MomConnect for nurses to receive weekly information on aspects such as maternal health, family planning and new-born health.
Carter says that while these innovations are positive, governments could do more to bridge digital gaps and provide quality resources. “This includes Wi-Fi services in hospitals and clinics as well as websites for hospitals and clinics, both of which are fundamental resources that could empower patients and save time and money in researching online.”
She adds that a simple function on a hospital website notifying a patient about a medicine stockout for example, might save them an expensive trip to the hospital, long queues as well as reduce some of the heavy burden on overcrowded facilities.
Carter has no doubt that digital technology will be key in ensuring the sustainability of future healthcare provision, and that the e-Patient will have a pivotal role to play.
“It is going to be a challenge to develop meaningful e-Health systems if patients are not equal participants. Although e-Patients are still evolving, especially in emerging countries like ours, they must not be undervalued as, in the future, they will be fundamental to collecting quality data in partnership with their medical professionals. Doctors can’t do this digital health transformation alone,” she adds.
Exploring the role of the e-Patient in a sustainable digital health system, the new Digital Health Conference at Africa Health will be featuring a session on ‘Digital Maturity: Fulfilling the potential towards better patient care’. The conference will take place on 29 May 2019 at The Gallagher Centre, Johannesburg.
Exhibition entry to Africa Health is free.
Conference costs range between R150 - R300 for online registration
Conference proceeds will be donated to a local charity.
Visit www.africahealthexhibition.com for more information.
Vanessa Carter is an advocate for antibiotic resistance as well as an advisor to the South African Antibiotic Stewardship Programme (SAASP). She also provides group workshops and CPD Accredited training around the use of healthcare social media and e-Patients. Read more about Vanessa’s work here: www.vanessacarter.co.za
More about Africa Health:
Africa Health, organised by Informa Exhibition’s Global Healthcare Group, is the largest platform on the continent for international and local companies to meet, network and do business with the rapidly expanding African healthcare market. In its ninth year, the 2019 event is expected to attract more than 10,500 healthcare professionals, with representation from over 160 countries and over 600 leading international and regional healthcare and pharmaceutical suppliers, manufacturers and service providers.
Africa Health has brought the internationally renowned MEDLAB Series – a portfolio of medical laboratory exhibitions and conferences across the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the Americas - on-board as one of the highlights of the exhibition series.
Africa Health is supported by CSSD Forums of South Africa (CFSA), The Association for Peri-Operative Practitioners in South Africa (APPSA – Gauteng Chapter), the International Federation for Medical and Biological Engineering (IFMBE), the Emergency Medicine Society of South Africa (EMSSA), the Independent Practitioners Association Foundation, Southern African Health Technology Assessment Society (SAHTAS), Medical Device Manufacturers Association of South Africa (MDMSA), Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, the Public Health Association of South Africa (PHASA), The Council for Health Service Accreditation of Southern Africa (COHSASA), Trauma Society of South Africa (TSSA), Society of Medical Laboratory Technologists of South Africa (SMLTSA) and the Biomedical Engineering Society of South Africa (BESSA).