Innovation can change healthcare in SA

In South African healthcare, there is a huge need for a better way of doing things. Innovation must drive positive change and ICON has been globally recognised for showing the way.

By Dr Ernst Marais

South Africa’s healthcare landscape generally does not make for a pretty picture. We hear of patients dying during routine operations or lying in hospital next to dead bodies for hours on end. The state of disease in the country is of such a magnitude that the national Department of Health is battling to be all things to all patients. We have one of the highest incidences of new TB cases in the world, are still fighting the HIV/Aids pandemic and face a growing number of people requiring treatment for non-communicable diseases like diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer.

But then we also hear of doctors performing ground-breaking medical procedures, like the world’s first penis transplant, which was undertaken in March 2015 in Stellenbosch. Urologist, André van der Merwe and his team from Stellenbosch University made headlines around the globe with this operation on a young man whose penis had to be amputated after a botched circumcision.

This operation shows that the South African medical world has the expertise and the ability to be innovative in the face of the country’s vast health challenges and needs. Dr van der Merwe told The Guardian that resistance from the transplant fraternity in SA had prompted him to cancel plans for the procedure four times, but that the needs of patients eventually persuaded him to go ahead.

This is the thing about innovation – whether in the medical world or in the fields of science or business – it is hardly ever easy and simple. There are obstacles that have to be overcome; sometimes there is resistance, especially from administrators preferring to do things the way they have always been done. Innovation requires determination and willpower. But the end result more than makes up for it. In the case of the penis transplant, one man now has an opportunity to have a healthy and normal life, clearing the way for others to have the same.

The good news is that there are many instances of innovative strategies, practices, plans and programmes happening at South African health institutions right now. Not all of them are as headline-grabbing as a penis transplant – but they save lives, they improve treatments for patients and they help to make things better for the millions of South Africans requiring medical treatment every day.

At the recent World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) in Doha, Qatar, the Independent Clinical Oncology Network (ICON) was featured in a prestigious report on how cancer care can be made more affordable without compromising on quality.

ICON was praised for its innovative healthcare solutions, especially how the network, through the collaborative initiatives of oncologists, determines cost-effective, high quality protocols and treatment plans. Oncologists use electronic platforms to fast-track pre-authorisation for patients and reduce waiting times, speeding up treatments.

ICON’s treatment models were also highlighted for resulting in a financial saving of up to 22% for colorectal cancer and 19% for prostate cancer. The organisation, through its formulary, has also been able to reduce the prices of generic medicines significantly – some classes of chemotherapy have dropped in cost by as much as 400%.

The report also highlighted how ICON was able to identify inefficiencies in the way care is being delivered and commended the organisation for eliminating waste and driving constant improvement.

At the heart of all innovation is the recognition of the need for a better way of doing things. Not necessarily a short cut – but a more efficient way. For ICON, this means a constant endeavour to ensure that patients receive the best possible treatment plan and that access is opened up to more people with cancer.

While some of these innovative ideas may not get as much publicity as a penis transplant, they improve the lives of patients, ensure a better service is delivered by hospitals and doctors and can help a national health department desperately in need of it. By nurturing similar innovative projects and programmes, and inspiring others to come up with great ideas to build up healthcare service delivery, we can help to improve healthcare in SA.