Innovation is taking healthcare by storm in the USA, but the same wave has not yet hit our South African shores. As an MD from Cape Town, South Africa, I have become exceedingly interested in the role innovation could play in transforming an African healthcare system. South Africa, just like the United States, is facing a myriad of health challenges relating to the colliding of the epidemic of infectious disease, such as HIV, with chronic diseases of lifestyle. These diseases place extreme strain on a system struggling to provide affordable and effective healthcare to an 84% uninsured population.
Now more than ever, we in South Africa require innovation from the ground up to transform challenges into new opportunities to deliver improved care to our patients and achieve better health outcomes. But how can we do this? There are no better leaders from whom to learn from than the MIT Media Lab and the Health and Wellness Innovation Hackathon organised by John Moore at the MIT Media Lab.
From left: Health & Wellness Innovation organizer and Media Lab PhD student John Moore, MD; Lindi van Niekerk, MD; and Media Lab research affiliate Julius Akinyemi.
For two weeks, I was able to surround myself with passionate innovators who worked in six project teams to address health challenges like HIV, epilepsy, hypertension, endometriosis, Parkinson’s, and cardiac failure. These teams pushed toward new frontiers in patient empowerment. In all health systems, we need to realise that our patients are competent interpreters of their own lives and that our role as innovators is to support them with the best means to do so.
I joined a group of experts developing a mobile application to support HIV patients in managing their disease, a project well-suited to a priority need in South Africa. This diverse team of clinicians, software developers, biomedical engineers, health literacy experts, and behaviour-change experts had a range of knowledge and backgrounds that worked to catalyse innovation. The first few days allowed for a wonderfully messy and creative process of sharing new and fresh ideas on how patients can be supported with medication adherence. After exploring broadly, we were able to focus on the core components and got started on developing a prototype. From animated videos providing educational insights, to screen designs targeted at both patients and providers, to an incorporated point of care test, the HIVIVA application emerged.
The product outcomes of such an innovation process are, of course, a benefit of attending a two-week event like this–but the relationships that result are arguably as great a benefit. I had the opportunity to form friendships and connections with such special people, including my teammates and members of the extended MIT family.
My ability to attend the hackathon was made possible through the unique and exciting collaboration being established between MIT and the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation at the Graduate School of Business in Cape Town. In addition, the people of the MIT Media Lab–Julius Akinyemi, Joost Bonsen, and John Moore–gave value to my visit, as did my host Michele Oshima who kindly opened her home to me for two weeks.
I departed MIT more excited than ever and filled with new enthusiasm to take the innovation process back to Cape Town. I look forward to creating a stimulating and enabling environment for our local innovators and entrepreneurs to uncover novel solutions to improve healthcare for our patients who need it most.