Updated 29 January 2014

True healthcare: people caring about people

Hi-tech and new drugs are important to improve healthcare but less so than innovations focused on people.

This is a strong theme emerging at the International Health Innovations Summit in Cape Town this week:

"The core of healthcare is people caring for people; otherwise we're missing the point, said Dr Ben Gaunt, Clinical Manager at Zithulele Hospital, which serves one of the poorest parts of the country on the wild coast in the former Transkei.

"Often," said Gaunt, "it's not rocket science. Improvements can come about by doing little things."

He used the example of pre-packaging anti-retroviral medications for patients with HIV-Aids:

"This was an opportunity, not just to get medication to patients more efficiently, but to also manage other aspects of their care."

Dr Vuyani Mhlomi, currently working at a hospital in Uniondale in the Klein Karoo, said that we need to move away from a "us and them" mentality, when it comes to the responsibility of focusing on healthcare for the poor:

"Healthcare should be tailored for 'us', but made available to 'them'. The rural centres should get the same quality healthcare the larger urban areas are receiving in the Western Cape. That said, we must appreciate the diversity of our health situation."

Mhlomi added that there is a need to shift focus from curing to preventative healthcare, and in so doing save money yet achieve greater results.

"Education is key to disease prevention. In poor areas, kids as young as 10 are smoking, and lifestyle diseases like diabetes are being diagnosed by age 30," said Mhlomi.

Fancy machines 'collect dust'

Sascha Stevenson, human rights lawyer at Section27, stressed that innovation must mean improvement to health service access:

"Access is related to locaton, socio-economic status and luck. Patients' biggest complaints are that they have to wait a long time at clinics or hospitals, and must pay a lot for transport. These are not hi-tech problems which necessarily have hi-tech solutions."

Stevenson believes that one key area for improvement is to provide community healthcare workers with greater support.

Lolly Mashao, a midwife working in Limpopo province, iterated this:

"Fancy machines often end up collecting dust. Supporting and educating nurses and midwives, and training and placing them appropriately according to their individual passion for a particular kind of work, may save more lives. Machines are useful, but they must be carefully chosen, must last, and must have people trained to use them. In Africa, solutions lie with the human resource."


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