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INTERVIEW: How mobile-first technology can transform healthcare

December 2, 2019 • Healthcare, People, Top Stories

Poor communication in healthcare is a massive problem both locally and globally. International studies show that 70% of all preventable mishaps occur as a result of miscommunication or no communication, at a cost estimated to run into billions of dollars.

Often, healthcare professionals work in ‘silos’, each looking at their particular piece of the patient puzzle. Ideally, they need to see the full picture by communicating and sharing their unique skills through combined decision-making, where the patient remains at the centre.

CEO of Signapps, Andrew Davies

IT News Africa’s Jenna Cook had the opportunity to chat with the CEO of Signapps, Andrew Davies – former Chief Operating Officer of Mxit and also a director of SweepSouth – on the importance of communication in the healthcare industry. Here’s what transpired:

How exactly does Signapps work?

Signapps is a mobile-first secure communication and collaboration platform.  It enables multi-disciplinary teams of healthcare practitioners to collaborate around the care of a patient. The medium for doing this is a mobile app – a secure messenger which allows group chats about a patient between a team of medical professionals (we call them Patient Threads).  The Patient Thread is similar to Whatsapp groups except that the chat space is secure, used for professional purposes only and conversations are centred around a patient.

The product can be integrated into existing patient admission and electronic health record systems as well as service providers such as pathology and radiology companies.  The idea is to push important information about patients from these systems into Signapps’ Patient Threads.

The product comes bundled with a number of value-added features, examples include digital forms for data gathering; workflows for process automation and chatbots to assist practitioners in specialised care verticals with advice.

In time we will use structured data gathered during the care coordination process to run artificial intelligence algorithms (specifically predictive analytics) on the data.  This for the primary purpose of providing practitioners with additional insight into patient conditions and needs.

What was the initial inspiration behind Signapps?

In 2016 we were approached by two Orthopedic surgeons who were using Whatsapp groups to coordinate the care of patients between teams in a public hospital.  This method of communicating was revolutionary in the environment.  These Whatsapp groups allowed all team members to make contributions and access bite-sized updates about patients in real-time from any location – a capability most of us are familiar within a social context.

Their problem was compliance with data privacy legislation, more specifically POPI, which prohibits the sharing of sensitive clinical information about patients in a social space on a social network.

Digging a bit deeper we came to understand that communication is a serious problem in healthcare. There are a lot of moving parts and coordination required between people and systems –  especially true for treating patients with complex conditions.  Seventy per cent of all preventable mishaps in healthcare environments happen as a result of miscommunication or no communication.

In developed markets such as the US and Europe technologies to address this problem are generally not user-friendly and very expensive.  In emerging markets, there is little or no technology infrastructure to support care coordination.

Signapps was borne out of a need to solve these problems.

Fast forward to 2019 – we are inspired by harnessing technology to positively transform how people are cared for and ultimately improve healthcare outcomes.

How has Signapps helped the healthcare technology field to evolve?

Evolve is a good choice of word.  Generally speaking, change happens in healthcare quite slowly. This said we have taken a view that within the next three to 10 years we are going to see a lot of innovation and disruption in this space. To our contribution – there are a number of systemic problems and opportunities in healthcare.  For example:

– Communication between people/organisations in healthcare is complex and fragmented. Communication in healthcare is a global problem and a challenging one to solve.

– South Africa faces specific problems in healthcare including access to care, a shortage of healthcare workers and socio-political pressures.

– The escalating costs of delivering healthcare are driving a shift to what is referred to as value-based care. Value-based care makes providers more accountable for costs and outcomes for patients. This was not always the case in the past.

– Consumers are demanding different healthcare engagement models focused on the convenience of care and are becoming more empowered with actionable data, advice and treatment options.

– Healthcare is going mobile – mobile is where providers and consumers of healthcare are.

We are building a platform that seeks to solve these problems and is aligned with these evolving trends and opportunities.

Where do you see the healthcare technology field in South Africa going in the future?

We see technology playing the defining role in providing better care to all South Africans and then beyond our borders.  This will happen by enabling providers of care to deliver better service and empowering consumers with knowledge and tools to get and keep themselves healthy.

To date, we have been focused on enabling better care between providers of care (doctors, nurses, allied professionals etc.).  In 2020 we are going to make a push into empowering consumers.  Access to care is a huge problem in emerging markets and our aspiration is to be at the cutting edge of solving it.

Technology will play a (we believe the) critical role in cost reduction – and is of vital importance to South Africa where the fiscus is under pressure and delivering basic care is a real problem.

Our focus on reducing costs has a dual focus:

First technology holds the potential to mitigate cost “blowouts” by implementing innovative models of care while at the same time creating positive healthcare outcomes for patients.

A great example of this is how Discovery Health combines the use of a reward scheme (Vitality) and technology (wearables, credit cards, vehicle monitoring devices and algorithms) to incentivize healthy behaviours.

In the Signapps world, we have been focused on enabling healthcare providers to practice multi-disciplinary care in a cost-effective way.  Multi-disciplinary care refers to engaging multiple specialists around the care of a patient.  There is a mountain of evidence to suggest that multi-disciplinary care enables patients to get out of the hospital faster and mitigates the possibility of them returning with preventable complications and associated costs down the line.

The beauty of this type of innovation is not just cost reduction – it is most often for the benefit of the patient.

Our second focus is on driving operational efficiencies for providers. Providers of care face increasing pressure on margins and are looking for ways to reduce costs through operational efficiencies. We are assisting them by digitising data and enabling integrations that reduce dependency on paper and inefficient processes.

What have been the biggest challenges or obstacles while working on Signapps?

We have faced a number of challenges – in the initial phases of funding, getting the right people into the business, stabilising the technology and establishing a customer base. As we have built traction in the market our biggest challenge has been a human one. How to scale engagement of practitioners on the Signapps platform. This has required us to get creative around how we build and simplify the product and how we support our customers on the ground.

Why are communication and combined decision making so key in ensuring that patients receive the best treatment from doctors?

This question is best answered by way of one example of what we do – stroke activation. There is a range of different specialities involved in coordinating the care of a stroke patient.  These include EU doctors, nurses, neurologists, radiologists, physio’s, OT’s and speech therapists.

All of these practitioners are involved in coordinating the care of patients, providers are not always collocated and real-time communication is critical. The consequences for the patient of not getting the right treatment from the right specialist at the right time can be dire. Process-driven systems are not the silver bullet and dealing with complex scenarios requires agility and strong communication between a team.

To summarize healthcare should be a holistic discipline. Healthcare problems are often interlinked touching a range of specialities. It makes intuitive sense that a range of different specialist perspectives on a person’s healthcare problem will result in the best outcome for that person and the evidence supports this. To the points made earlier, it is also in the interest of the funders of care being the government, medical schemes and administrators or the patients themselves.

What is Signapps doing to eliminates the inherent inaccuracies, delays and risks associated with paper-based record systems?

Our first objective has been to improve communication between teams. Paper-based records cannot compete with technology in this regard because, put simply, a paper record is not mobile. They cannot easily be shared between distributed teams in real-time.

As we plug intelligence into Signapps and gather structured data from users we have gone to great lengths to ensure we use validate human input to specifically prevent inaccuracies and human error.

Once digitised data can be very useful for measuring outcomes, generating real-time machine-driven insights and used for learning and improving processes.

By Jenna Delport

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