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Telemedicine goes beyond the old borders

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Telemedicine or healing at a distance uses technology to overcome geographical borders and increase health care for all. VINO GOVENDER CM(SA), Executive for Product Innovation and Marketing at Dark Fibre Africa, explains how it works.

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. 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.

 

Africa News

How machine learning can save your life

Over 11000 people died during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.The virus hopped between Guinea, Leone, Nigeria and Liberia, before making its way to the UK and US. But what would have happened if analysis and machine learning stepped in to help solve the problem, asks ANESHAN RAMALOO of SAS.

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Over 11000 people died during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.The virus hopped between Guinea, Leone, Nigeria and Liberia, before making its way to the UK and US. But what would have happened if analysis and machine learning stepped in to help solve the problem, asks ANESHAN RAMALOO of SAS.

But what if we could have predicted the outbreak months before it happened, buying us time to take proactive measures to contain it and curb its spread?

With access to overwhelming volumes of data, the computational power needed to store and analyse this data in real time, and sophisticated algorithms that can find patterns in the data and alert authorities to health problems before they become, well, problems, pandemics don’t have to be as devastating as they have been in the past.

In fact, with advanced data analytics, we can better manage any disease – long-term, short-term or pandemic – resulting in better patient treatment, more efficient use of resources and cost savings.

It’s been done before.

By analysing data from social media, blogs, online forums and keyword searches, we were able to predict the 2012-2013 US flu season three months before the Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued its first official warning.

Imagine the impact if the same analytical power was applied across the entire healthcare spectrum – not only on a national and global level, but right down to the individual level.

Data evolution

In the past, health workers relied on manually intensive, paper-based systems to record infections and deaths during disease outbreaks. Not only was it easy for errors to slip through but because the data was anecdotal and historical, authorities did not get a complete understanding of the reach and impact of the outbreak.

During the Ebola outbreak, the CDC adopted a mobile data collection system that enabled health workers to instantly submit information to a database via text messages. This low-cost method of information gathering not only resulted in fewer errors but also allowed analysts to draw up detailed maps of population movements, which made it easier to understand how the disease was likely to spread, and where to set up treatment centres.

While this was certainly an improvement on the paper-based systems of old, the drawback was that mobile data was historic and did not provide researchers with the ability to track developments and population movements in real time.

Data-driven action

But mobile phones are just one source of data. Today, health authorities can overlay thousands of data sources – including social media, health and physician reports, keyword searches, media reports, transactional data from retailers and pharmacies, airline ticket sales, geospatial data and more – to not only better manage diseases and outbreaks when they do happen, but to see them coming months in advance – and what could happen if we don’t act on the information.

By mining structured and unstructured data, we can track the movements of infected populations and who they come into contact with; we can measure the success of containment policies, education campaigns and treatments – and what to do if they’re not working; we can determine the effect of weather and other environmental factors on the spread of diseases.

Never before have we been able to act on information to save lives, not just during pandemics but through better understanding and treatment of diseases.

Personalised treatment

Until now, standard treatments for diseases such as cancer and HIV have been applied to all patients, regardless of their unique profiles and with little understanding as to why some people respond well to certain treatments and others don’t.

But by analysing and creating ‘medical maps’ of individuals that take into account their anatomy, physiology, DNA, RNA and chemical composition, doctors can prescribe personalised treatments that have a greater chance of success.

There are many other benefits of data analysis in healthcare:

·        Personalised treatment can result in fewer hospital admissions and can produce faster results and better experiences for patients;

·        By better understanding the impact of lifestyle and diet on health, medical aid providers can educate their members with the aim of improving their health, which could result in cost savings for both the provider and the member;

·        Governments can use data to develop proactive approaches to protecting and promoting public health, to prioritise services and to find ways to cut costs so that they can provide healthcare to more citizens.

·        By sharing data and results from clinical trials and combining that data with academic, patient and industry data, medical researchers can better understand the genetics of viruses, why some strains are more deadly than others, and why some people are more resistant to viruses. This could spark innovation and generate new insights that ultimately improve treatment and outcomes.

AI and machine learning

As the use of intelligent algorithms, machine learning and natural language processing becomes more entrenched in advanced data analytics, technology will increasingly supplement the skills of humans to produce faster and more accurate medical diagnoses.

We’re already seeing successful applications of artificial intelligence (AI) in predicting relapse in leukaemia patients and in distinguishing between different types of cancer.

Machine learning can extract valuable insights from unstructured data like clinical notes and academic journals to provide even larger datasets that will transform the medical industry into a proactive front against diseases.

There are plenty of doomsday theories about how machines will supersede our intelligence and rise against us. But there aren’t enough stories about the potential of data analytics, AI and machine learning to supplement human skills and knowledge to drastically changes lives for the better – and even save them. Right now, it’s looking more likely that machines will actually help us to live longer – and I don’t know many people who would object to that.

 

  • ANESHAN RAMALOO, ‎Data Scientist and Senior Business Solutions Manager at SAS.
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Africa News

Cloud is not a country

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Medium and large businesses across South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria experience very different usage, benefits and intentions with cloud computing, according to new research by World Wide Worx and F5 Networks.

Cloud computing has taken off dramatically across Africa’s major markets, but its benefits are experienced very differently in each region – as are its budget allocations.

These were some of the key findings of Cloud Africa 2018, a research project conducted by World Wide Worx for global networking application company F5 Networks, across Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa earlier this year. Decision-makers at 300 medium and large organisations were interviewed about cloud computing usage, benefits and intentions.

“It is no longer about whether to use the cloud, but what benefits are being gained from the cloud,” says Matthew Barker, F5 Networks’ divisional sales manager for Sub-Saharan Africa. “These depend heavily on the dynamics of each market, so we were not surprised to see that businesses in each country emphasised different benefits.”

“Over the five years since World Wide Worx conducted equivalent research, use of the cloud among medium and large organisations has more than doubled, from less than 50% using it in 2013 to pervasive use in 2018”, says World Wide Worx managing director, Arthur Goldstuck.

Respondents in Nigeria and Kenya named business efficiency and scalability by far the most important benefit of cloud computing, with 80% and 75%, respectively, selecting it as an advantage, compared to 61% of South African respondents.

For South Africans, time-to-market or speed of deployment came in as the most prominent benefit, as cited by 68% of respondents. In contrast, only 48% of companies in Kenya and 28% in Nigeria named this as a key benefit.

Barker believes this is a result of the infrastructure challenges in developing information technology markets like Nigeria and Kenya, where the cloud is used to overcome the obstacles that get in the way of efficiency.

“In South Africa, with a more mature IT landscape, the focus is on the competition rather than the business itself,” he says.

This is borne out by the fact that almost a quarter (23%) of South African respondents see the cloud as a platform for international expansion, whereas this figure drops below one in five in Kenya (17%) and below one in ten in Nigeria (6%). The one area where all three countries are level – using the cloud as a platform for service innovation – is ranked exceptionally low, at around 15% across these markets.

“Internationally, it is taken for granted that the cloud is an ideal platform for both innovation and for establishing a global footprint,” says Goldstuck. “In these three markets, these are benefits that are only now beginning to be recognised, but are still a long way from being a priority. The cloud is here but its full benefits have not yet arrived.”

Key findings

Business impact:

·       82% of respondents in Nigeria have seen an impact from cloud computing on market share, with 48% seeing a high or very high impact.

·       In Kenya, 69% have seen an overall positive impact, while 48% had seen a high or very high impact on market share.

·       In South Africa, 66% had seen a positive impact but only 33% had seen a high or very high impact.

·       Innovation within the organisation saw an equally high impact in all markets, with 100% positive impact in Nigeria, 98% in Kenya and 88% in South Africa.

·       The cloud has had a similar impact on brand perception, at 100% in Nigeria, 98% in Kenya and 85% in South Africa.

·       The cloud has also had a high impact on customer experience, at 96% in Nigeria, 85% in Kenya and 81% in South Africa.

Cloud budgets:

Nine out of ten (90%) companies in South Africa said they had increased spending on cloud computing last year, and 83% said they would increase these budgets in 2018. In Nigeria, 78% said they had increased budgets last year, and 94% said they would increase their spending this year. The biggest increase comes from Kenya, however, with 74% of companies having increased cloud budgets in 2017, rising to a massive 98% in 2018.

A minimal proportion of respondents – not more than 2% in any of the countries surveyed – said they had decreased cloud spending last year. For 2018, no companies in Kenya or Nigeria said they would decrease spending, although 5% of South African respondents said they would.

Broken down by industry in South Africa, the highest proportion of increased budgeting for 2018 was reported by IT software and services companies, at 92%, followed by Mining at 85% and Retail trade at 83%. The biggest drop in cloud budgeting was expected by the Engineering sector, with 13% declining in planned spending.

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Apps:

When asked which apps were critical to organisations, 68% of Nigerian and 67% of Kenyan companies said Service apps were critical, while only 40% of South African respondents named these as key.

On the other hand, South African companies were far more likely than those in the other countries to regard human resources apps as important: 43% of South African respondents named HR apps as critical to business, compared to 19% in Kenya and 10% in Nigeria.

“It is clear that more attention is paid to internally-focused apps in South Africa than in the other markets,” says Barker. “In Nigeria and Kenya, on the other hand, customer-facing apps get the closest attention.”

A further indication of the low emphasis on internal apps is the rating of operational apps, which are seen as critical by only 15% of respondents in Kenya and 10% in Nigeria. While still low in South Africa, at 30%, it was more than double the proportion of the other two countries combined.

One area where all markets are equal, however, is in business apps, with only small variations between the three countries measured. Nigerian respondents took them slightly more seriously than the rest, with 76% seeing them as critical, while 72% of South African companies and 67% of those in Kenya agreed.

“Ultimately, the cloud is about better ways of doing business,” says Goldstuck. “That is reflected in cloud priorities and budgets across Africa.”

 

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