Health & Fitness

Opportunities, hurdles in digital health shift

video conference
A doctor's video conferencing with a colleague. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH 

At some point in the banking industry’s history, financial records reconciliation was done manually. One major weakness was an asynchronous knowledge of an account’s status across branches. To work around this, crooks would withdraw money in one branch and travel to another for a withdrawal before the reconciliations were done.

Banking has since adopted IT as a evolutionary tool to solve such discrepancies. This though has not been without its own inherent weakness: Technology has opened the door for massive, almost untraceable losses occasioned by security breaches.

The health sector seems to be faced with a similar dilemma. Do we embrace technology for data congruency or do we retain paperwork despite its challenges?

Depending on which health facility one works in, a mix of both analogue and digital health record tools are in use. The former dominating in the public side, but many private General Practitioners (GPs) and small clinics who form a majority of service providers are still “manual”.

Users of each system swear by it. The “manuals” admire its ease of writing, but it is also sadly linked to an inability to have aggregating or intelligent analytics capacity. This is a major weakness and perhaps the main reason for a desire to move towards digital health records.


The government, arguably the single largest individual health data generator and consumer, is still stuck in the analogue health records era. Attempts at technology adoption are noted, but are limited mainly to level four, five and six facilities, which barely account for 23 percent.

In contrast, almost all dispensaries and health centres still run paper-based records. Cumulatively, these last two account for 87 percent of public health units.

Digital migration

Each system isn’t without its own inherent flaws. The shift to digital data in healthcare will not happen in one leap given the costs required.

The starting question is whether the benefits of a digital migration outweigh its risks? If so, then a move to new technology is warranted.

However, a gradual phased approach that assesses capacity constraints of the current system as well as the components of the alternative, is best employed. Key concerns like storage, data security and ease of access to users when needed are vital.

The first challenge though is data entry. In a scenario replicated across many public health facilities, dedicated health record officers are missing. Secondly, once the data is obtained, where does it reside?

Here, cloud-based data storage solution providers have an opportunity and indeed should spearhead the initiative of data digitisation, including investing in the initial costs to stimulate the jump to digital records.

IT hardware vendors, data handlers, database server security experts must all join the movement to catalyse health workers to “make the leap” to digital records.