South Africa’s roadmap to digital health care

Myllyoja Jouko

We are at the Daspoort Clinic in a suburb of Johannesburg. We are told that due to thunderstorms, for example, network connections can sometimes be unavailable even for a week. The key driving force of the clinic are students, who come here to work and learn. 

In spring 2014, VTT initiated two-year long research project ”Digital Health Future – Roadmapping South African Strategy”.  It is an ICI project funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland, aimed at supporting the development of the South African health care system. Long-term impacts of the project are intended to take place through competence building at research partner CSIR-Meraka.

I travelled to South Africa with Torsti Loikkanen and Hannes Toivanen. During our trip, we visited Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT)RLabs, and the Daspoort Clinic. Our visit to CPUT focused on the innovation centre, where students develop their ideas with the support of the staff and together with other students. We paid special attention to how multidisciplinary the activities were, to the powerful hands-on approach of the innovation schemes, and the way the improvement of entrepreneurial skills was supported. Rlabs opened up the dimensions of social innovation in local communities − on the Internet course for women, for example, the most important impact of all might be the opportunity to escape from everyday life and share the challenges it presents with other women. Our visit to the clinic revealed various practical problems of a technological nature, such as the unreliability of Internet connections. Other types of challenges include the ever-changing mobile numbers of local residents and their attitude towards seeking medical treatment.

In addition to meeting local, regional and national challenges, the project involved methodological development work, because the coming together of Foresight and Pro-poor/Inclusive innovation approaches requires the development of a mutual interface. New thinking is also required to address the contents of the Roadmap created under the project – the drivers of change, bottlenecks, technologies or solutions relevant in Western environments may take on a completely different meaning in the context of a developing country. The difference is amplified the closer we get to the local operating environment; for individual clinics, the needs are very concrete and immediate. Talking about megatrends or ten-year plans in such an environment may sound rather hollow.

The local reality, in which history, the political environment, practices, values and practical challenges are different from ours, questions the approaches that are familiar to us, but at the same time provides an opportunity to enrich the way we act and think. We must seize this opportunity, whilst also remembering that the ultimate goal is not to “export” some unique forms of expertise, which will automatically generate new know-how to the recipient. Instead, the purpose is to maintain our ability to stay open to different realities and approaches, share our own know-how, and accept the know-how of our co-operation partners. This mutually beneficial learning process leads to new understanding and competencies that can be applied in various ways – together and separately.

Communication and transparency are also important factors in research when we are operating in a global environment, creating new opportunities for co-operation and aiming for social impact. We will be compiling workshop proposals, research results and other materials generated under the project on the project website at:

Jouko Myllyoja

Senior Scientist 

According to an article in Helsingin Sanomat on 2 June 2014, more than half of the exports of Finnish high technology industry were health-related, making health technology the top field in high technology exports. The same article also noted that the annual growth rate of health technology has remained steady at 6% for the past six years. Health technology is also among the fastest growing industries globally.

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