Health-care innovations to drive down local costs

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Londiwe Buthelezi

A diagnostic kit that can detect tuberculosis (TB) in 25 minutes, diagnosis of diabetes using a dipstick and a doctor consultation that can be capped at R50. These are just a few of the health-care innovations that South African medical researchers and companies have up their sleeves, and are planning to introduce to the health-care system in their bid to drive down costs.

Regarding the TB diagnostic device, Richard Gordon, the director of strategic health innovation partnerships at the Medical Research Council (MRC), said early indications were that it would be about half the price of GeneXpert, the only other automated diagnostic test for TB.

According to the Treatment Action Campaign, each GeneXpert cartridge cost $120 (about R1 330) in 2012 while the machine cost $62 000.

The public sector cost for eligible countries, which include South Africa, has fallen to $17 500 for the machine and $9.98 for the cartridge.

The MRC said much progress had been made in developing the technology, which would be complementary to GeneXpert, and the only thing left was to find a manufacturer and work out how it would be rolled out to the public.

Health-care workers could dispense TB medicine within half an hour after a patient had been diagnosed, Gordon said during the inclusive health-care innovation summit hosted by UCT last week.

The MRC’s research project on a dipstick diagnostic tool for diabetes is still at a relatively early stage as studies on it only began in April last year. The aim is to pick up early development of diabetes as the current routine, where diabetes is diagnosed through traces of sugar content in one’s urine, picks up the disease too late.

“So if you model the micro-economics of how much diabetes cost the country and if you stop people from getting diabetes by modifying their diet or lifestyle, it’s a massive economic impact,” Gordon said.

The researchers have yet to validate the data to see that the dipstick works accurately but they said the early indications already looked interesting.

The summit brought together clinicians, scientists and businesses who heeded the health minister’s call to bring innovation to a sector that has been resistant to change.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said that while South Africa had witnessed innovations in drug discoveries, new diagnostics and equipment, not much progress had been made to effectively deliver these to the needy.

“There are two areas of the six building blocks of health care that have not been taken care of: health-care financing and the health delivery systems. Innovations need to come in on that,” Motsoaledi told the innovators.

Motsoaledi announced that the MRC would form funding relations with the universities that undertook medical research in the country as problems that had engulfed this body over the past years had now been resolved.

He said the MRC had already allocated funding to a number of universities that submitted research proposals last year and the amount allocated depended on each research topic and its impact.

The Department of Health would also launch its own technology innovation “soon”. It would register all pregnant women in the country and be in contact with them “in real time” using their cellphones.

“We want to know about them in real time, to interact with them. We want a situation where the woman just presses the phone and says please call me,” Motsoaledi said.

The new system would help the department attend to emergencies and be able to solve problems such as a shortage of supplies in real time.

The initiative was taken since a large number of pregnant women who made use of public health facilities did not report for any antenatal visits and saw a doctor for the first time when they gave birth, the minister said.

Last year, he told Parliament in a written response that South Africa’s maternal mortality ratio for 2010 was 300 per 100 000 live births.

In terms of health financing innovation, one company, Hello Healthcare, which offers integrated primary health-care services by pulling together different segments of the private health-care sector, said it was able to offer primary health consultation for R38 in Zambia.

Hello Healthcare founder York Zucci said it was possible to cap doctor consultations, excluding consumables, at R50 in other African markets.


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