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Science of the times: Is healthcare ripe for a revolution?


Science of the times: Is healthcare ripe for a revolution?

With the state of health globally as a backdrop, the fourth industrial revolution holds much promise, say experts

Senior science reporter

Imagine a drone silhouetted against the sky in a rural stretch of Rwanda. Attached to the drone is some sort of package.
This strange creature of technology finds its coordinates and hovers just above them, the package is slowly released into a pair of human hands, and within a few minutes urgent medication or a blood transfusion is administered to a patient.
A life is saved.
This was the image conjured up at the National Science & Technology Forum (NSTF) discussion in Cape Town this week as experts pondered the question: how is the fourth industrial revolution going to affect industry, society and education?
The answer is: in ways we cannot imagine, both good and bad.
Faster is better
While our already staggering unemployment figures, for example, could be pushed up exponentially by that revolution, it is in the sphere of healthcare where a very positive impact could be felt.
The need for faster innovation is very clear, says Taonga Chilalika, a local senior associate at international organisation PATH (Program for Appropriate Technology in Health), who presented a talk on “opportunities for improving healthcare in South Africa” at the NSTF discussion.
With the state of health globally as a backdrop, the fourth industrial revolution holds much promise.
“Six million children die before their fifth birthday. The poorer are 200% more likely to die than children born into wealthier families. Between 2000 and 2015, 6.2 million died of malaria.”
These are just some of many alarming statistics, but on the flipside genuine innovation can have a massive impact.
For example, she says, in the year 2000, a whopping 15.6 million deaths were averted by the measles vaccine.
So, does the fourth industrial revolution offer hope for other innovations that could “save lives, save money, and create jobs?”
The answer is yes – the scope for innovation is endless – but at the same time “there is a human factor to healthcare that cannot be replaced”.
Also important to note is that the fourth industrial revolution in SA is hampered to some degree in healthcare by certain “gaps in the research and development” field within health.
These include “a lack of coordinated leadership, investments but no clear plans for implementation, and a siloed research and development landscape”.
Those “silos”, she says, see our health research confining itself in categories by disease, or technology, or sector, instead of an integrated approach that works across all of them.
But, we also do have role model innovations that are using cutting-edge technology and heralding a positive start to the revolution.
These include the BioVac Institute institute in Cape Town which is researching and developing vaccines, the PreClinical Drug Development Platform at North-West University, and the Drug Discovery and Development Centre at the University of Cape Town.
According to the World Economic Forum, the key trends of the fourth industrial revolution in healthcare’s future include “gene therapy, artificial intelligence and robotics, personalised medicine, and wearable digital devices”.
But, says Daniel Visser, a strategy manager at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, in the SA context, the use of wearable digital devices in healthcare could also deepen “the wide gap” of inequality that already plagues our society in terms of tracking our health.

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