BY Wesley Diphoko 2 MINUTE READ

No one has ever imagined that someone could die due to a malfunctioning and compromised health technology system at one of South Africa’s health institutions. It seems such a scenario is possible now that there’s a security breach in SA’s key health entity.

South Africa’s National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) has indicated that it is dealing with a ransomware attack that is affecting the dissemination of lab results. The NHLS runs 265 laboratories across South Africa that provides testing services for public healthcare facilities in the country’s nine provinces. The security breach has significantly affected the ability of health professionals to provide care.

What is disturbing is that South African health entities have been held ransom for days resulting in chaos across SA’s health institutions. How could such an important system fall into such a situation. The answer to this question is complicated and includes various factors. A key part of the cause has a lot to do with the poor state of technology in the South African public health sector. For many years technology has received limited attention even though it is becoming a critical part of providing health care.This incident should change the attitude towards technology in public health institutions. At the national level there’s a need to improve security systems. In addition to better systems there’s a need for capable technology professionals in South African health institutions. Chief Health Tech Officers need to form part of leading national health institutions.

In addition to these interventions. There’s a need to reconsider the centralisation of health technology systems. While the need for centralisation is understandable, it should not be done in such a way that a problem in one part leads to chaos everywhere. Some form of decentralisation should be enabled to counter cyber attacks such as these.

In addition to these interventions there’s a need to get the basics right. One such basic intervention is health data management. These are key if South Africa is to reap the benefits of Artificial Intelligences in health. This health systems breach should serve as a wakeup call to turn around the health sector.

The cost of establishing the fundamentals and ideal systems may be high but they are necessary. The cost of neglecting technology in the health sector is too high considering the impact on lives.

Technology cannot be wished away in health care. We will see more situations that requires the use of technology systems. If the technology skills and infrastructure is poor health systems will become a victim of hackers. Adding technology to the health sector should be accompanied by the right workforce and infrastructure.

South Africa is not the first to be hit by health technology attacks. The UK has been a victim before. SA will not be the last and such situation may come back to test the strength of health systems. Now is the time overhaul technology systems in health in preparation for a better health care future.