SA health tech must be overhauled after security breach highlights issues

There’s a security breach in South Africa's key health entity.

There’s a security breach in South Africa's key health entity.

Published Jul 9, 2024


No one has ever imagined that someone could die due to a malfunctioning and compromised health technology system at one of South Africa’s health institutions. It seems such a scenario is possible now that there’s a security breach in the country’s key health entity.

The National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) has indicated that it was dealing with a ransomware attack that was affecting the dissemination of lab results.

The NHLS runs 265 laboratories across South Africa that provides testing services for public health-care facilities in the nine provinces. The security breach has significantly affected the ability of health professionals to provide care.

What is disturbing is that South African health entities have been held ransom for days, resulting in chaos across health institutions. How could such an important system find itself in into such a situation? The answer to this question is complicated and includes various factors.

A key part of the cause has a lot to do with the poor state of technology in the public health sector. For many years, technology has received limited attention even though it is becoming a critical part of providing health care. The incident should change the attitude towards technology in public health institutions.

At the national level, there’s a need to improve security systems. In addition to better systems, there’s a need for capable technology professionals in health institutions. Chief health tech officers need to form part of leading national health institutions.

There’s also a need to reconsider the centralisation of health technology systems. While the need for centralisation is understandable, it should not be done in such a way that a problem in one part leads to chaos everywhere. Some form of decentralisation should be enabled to counter cyberattacks such as these.

In addition to the interventions, there’s a need to get the basics right. One such basic intervention is health data management. These are key if South Africa is to reap the benefits of artificial intelligence in health. The breach in the health system should serve as a wake-up call to turn around the health sector.

The cost of establishing the fundamentals and ideal systems might be high but they are necessary. The cost of neglecting technology is too high, considering the impact on lives.

Technology cannot be wished away in health care. We will see more situations that requires the use of technology systems. If the technology skills and infrastructure are poor, health systems will become victims of hackers. Adding technology to the health sector should be accompanied by the right workforce and infrastructure.

South Africa is not the first to be hit by health technology attacks. The UK has been a victim before. South Africa will not be the last and such a situation might come back to test the strength of health systems. Now is the time overhaul technology systems in health in preparation for a better health-care future.

Wesley Diphoko is a technology analyst. He has been working at the intersection of technology and media as the Editor of FastCompany (SA) magazine.