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How high-tech will personalise health

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The health sector is on the cusp of a step change that will see patients benefit from treatment that is more focused on the individual than ever before, writes DR WOLFGANG MERTZ, CTO EMEA for Healthcare, Life Sciences and HPC, Dell EMC Isilon.

Through the better use of data and advances in analytics, precision healthcare promises a more personalised approach that will significantly improve the outcome of even the most serious illnesses.

As well as improving patient care, this new level of personalisation also has the potential to meet the increasing cost challenges faced by the healthcare sector by ensuring resources are allocated in the best way.

It’s generating significant traction as a result, with Global Market Insights recently forecasting that the market size will reach $88 billion by 2023.

Not all patients are the same

The fundamental idea behind precision medicine is that one size doesn’t fit all. While some patients respond to a certain treatment, there will be others that don’t.

For example, for one specific type of cancer, just 20 percent of patients respond well to chemotherapy. This means that treating the other 80 percent in the same way is both time consuming and expensive, with little chance of a positive outcome.

As well as environmental and lifestyle factors, these variations in how patients respond to treatment are often down to genetics. While specific patient details and heath history can inform precision medicine, the ability to analyse individual genomes can take it to a new level.

The role of the genome

Analysis of a patient’s genome can identify biomarkers that provide a strong indication of how they will respond to a certain treatment. In short, this means patients can be offered treatment that is most likely to treat their illness successfully.

Genome sequencing reveals the unique code that defines the physical characteristics of a person, including the likelihood that they will develop certain illnesses.

Specialist companies provide genome sequencing but the fact that the human genome was first sequenced just ten years ago and contains more than three billion base pairs, puts the data challenge in perspective.

Many countries have national collections of genomics data, such as Genomics England, which is funded by the NHS. Using this data, patterns can emerge across populations that can be used to inform treatment.

However, there remain a number of challenges before precision medicine can become a practical reality for the average patient.

Getting the infrastructure right

Firstly, health organisations must gain an understanding of where different data is located and how it can be accessed in an appropriate way.

Patient data is often siloed in hospitals (in Electronic Medical Records or PACS, for example) while other useful genomics data could be spread across regions, countries and beyond. The first challenge is therefore to locate and access relevant data. This requires national and international coordination to establish channels and systems that healthcare organisations can use to access the data they need.

Of course, all of this data must then be consolidated in a way that gives it practical value. Data lake technology – for example, Dell EMC’s healthcare data lake – is particularly useful in this respect, as it brings together structured and unstructured data from a wide range of sources in a single location. Once in place, this data can be easily interrogated by analytics tools to generate useful insight.

There will also be challenges around the approach different regions take with their genomics data. Some countries may have a small number of healthcare regions in a simple structure, while others are more complex. Healthcare organisations, government and research institutions will need to work out the best way to work with the relevant stakeholders, including who will lead the data consolidation and how this can be done as efficiently as possible.

In this scenario, it’s likely that the volume of data that organisations have access to will grow over time, as new connections are made and further bodies of research are created. The size of the data lake is therefore likely to grow, so scale-out storage, such as that provided by Dell EMC Isilon, will be another important element of the technology infrastructure  needed to support  the development of precision medicine.

Making genomics data useable
The latest storage technology will clearly be crucial but there also needs to be a way for GPs and other clinicians to make use of the data when dealing with individual patient cases. The data needs to be presented in a way that can be understood by people who aren’t trained in data science.

The development of platform applications is critical if this progress in data analysis is to make a real impact. Specialist ISVs are already developing applications to deliver these kinds of insights but it will take time for them to be adopted widely.

Security is another key consideration when working with patient data. Strict access controls should therefore be applied and data anonymised where relevant.

As the exciting world of genomics is poised to revolutionise patient care, it’s important that organisations delivering healthcare prepare their technology infrastructure.

Data lakes, scale-out storage and platform applications will all be key technologies in making precision medicine a reality in the coming years. If healthcare organisations put these capabilities in place, they will be able to bring patient care to a whole new level.

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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