Virtual tools: the future of cancer support?

Cancer support technologies are sprouting around South Africa at a rapid rate, helping to bridge a gap in the healthcare matrix and empowering patients to help themselves.

According to the latest statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO), cancer causes around 7.9 million deaths worldwide each year. Of these deaths 70%, around 5.5 million occur in the developing world. It is forecasted that if no action is taken, deaths from cancer in the developing world will grow to 8.9 million worldwide in 2030.

“In South Africa we are leading the way and finding innovative solutions to tackle cancer and other diseases burdening developing countries, which are now spilling over into other African countries,” says Jan Grobler, co-founder of Community TECH, an NGO which builds technology solutions for other NGOs with a focus on health and specifically children’s education.

Like many other eHealth technologies in South Africa, Community TECH is focusing on finding solutions to specific socio-economic issues contributing to cancer prevalence and hindering survivorship in developing countries.

“The reason South Africa is creating the world’s best healthcare apps, is because we have bigger socio economic and healthcare issues to deal with than first world countries. In Africa we start by identifying the problems in the healthcare system, then we build or buy the technology to help solve them,” says the ex-business consultant.

Community TECH recently launched Pocket Cancer Support (PCS), a digital platform created in collaboration with cancer organisation People Living with Cancer.

For Grobler, the increase in affordability and accessibility of mobile phones and networks in remote areas has been a major game changer in the healthcare landscape for South Africa. Like most of their products, PCS is primarily based on mobile computing, creating an opportunity to reach anyone with mobile data.

“Not everyone lives near a clinic. Not everyone knows about cancer. Not everyone has access to a radio. But almost everyone has a phone. Phones are a priority, even in the poorest communities, if not for communication purposes then for status reasons. This gives us access to people we could previously not assist,” says Grobler.

The mobile app is designed to address what Grobler believes are the three biggest issues South Africa and other developing countries are facing – access to treatment and support; internet access and barriers to communication; and cancer education to combat stigma and increase early detection and access to prompt  treatment  which  then  will improve survival rates .

The Pocket Cancer Support app will provide content in all 11 South African languages and is currently being rolled out in Limpopo, with plans to next set up in the Western Cape, starting with the Stellenbosch area. Its operating system, which is compatible with operating systems of both smart phones and feature phones, serves a multiple of powerful functions.

The solution starts by building patient profiles to understand the user and then customising information to match their individual needs. Patients may be sent, via a chat facility (similar to WhatsApp) or sms, specific information relevant to their case or directed to the nearest appropriate treatment facility. In specific cases PLWC will intervene by contacting patients directly in order to assess and resolve healthcare or medical issues in the remote areas if a patient needs urgent attention.

The application is also able to track a user’s location which helps PLWC to be proactive to identify and attend to people immediately, even those simply meddling on the system who don’t know how to use it.

In addition to providing real-time support and solutions, the application will also assist in monitoring patients’ treatment experience and store data over the next few years. The patient feedback mechanism enables patients to rate the service received at both public and private healthcare facilities. This data and statistics will later be used to help the South African government identify exactly what and where the problems lie.

“Facing cancer is daunting and traumatic. Add to that the financial burden that comes with this disease, and lack of access to any adequate healthcare facility or support system, and it is practically unmanageable. This is the reality for many South Africans and the reason why we need to find effective integrated solutions in healthcare delivery in both the public and private sector,” says Dr Ernst Marais, Chief Operating Officer of ICON (Independent clinical Oncology Network).

ICON is another South African healthcare company that is striving to broaden care to patients in Africa and combat the impact of debilitating treatment costs through the use of technology. Its state-of-the-art IT system called eAuth has radically improved authorisation time between doctors and funders cutting costs and improving the efficiency of care, without cutting on quality. ICON is also the primary sponsor of the PLWC Limpopo outreach project, where the Pocket Cancer Support platform was first introduced.

“The impact and opportunities of well-designed virtual and mobile tools are helping us to create more effective and accessible patient care systems. Projects such as Pocket Cancer Support are not only directly empowering patients, they are serving as live case studies and gathering important patient information which will help to guide better care in the future,” says Marais.

“Virtual tools are enabling us to finally put the power literally back in patients’ hands, where it belongs,” he says.