One such entrepreneur is Elliot Sack, the 32-year-old owner of the eHealth Group, a Johannesburg-based start-up with the potential to connect South Africa’s concentrated oversupply of urban medical expertise with the remotest clinics throughout the country.
The eHealth Group holds the Southern African licence for the state-of-the-art telemedicine and virtual healthcare technology developed by the US based tech firm InTouch Health.
Elliot explains that a form of telemedicine is already being used in the South African Health system, but in a haphazard, informal way, out of sheer desperation by junior healthcare offices for advice and guidance. A nurse or junior doctor would send a cellphone picture of a patient to a remote specialist, for example. She does so on her own cost, and because the quality of the picture is not always good, runs the risk of misdiagnoses.
The eHealth Group, through a range of very sophisticated audio-visual communication devices developed by InTouch, can bring the specialist or senior doctor virtually into the ward. At the top of their range of devices are robots that are the eyes, ears and voice of remote specialists through which they can do a ward round, moving from bed to bed. Another device, fitted with sophisticated camera equipment, can bring remote specialists virtually into operating theatres where they can supervise and guide junior surgeons.
It may sound futuristic, but InTouch devices are already used in 2000 hospitals globally. Three of the devices are already approved by the FDA, the US medical regulator.
The range includes portable communication modules for emergency teams that can place medical specialists virtually at the scene of an accident, as well as tablet-based apps that allow homecare workers access to instant and top medical guidance.
Crucially for South Africa, the eHealth Group’s system can stream high quality video over low-bandwidth lines so that even the remotest clinics can use it, says Elliot. In a country where the wealthiest 15% of the population has access to 70% of available medical skills and the poorest 85% have to make do with only 30%, often because of proximity, the opportunity is clear.
Elliot saw that opportunity when he came to South Africa from the United States in 2013 for a job opportunity. He was born in South Africa, but emigrated with his family to America in the 1980s. He studied business at a university in Florida, and worked in hospitality, insurance and finance among other industries, but always had his mind set on following in the entrepreneurial footsteps of his grandfather, the well-known Johannesburg clothing entrepreneur Gerald Sack.
So even though he came to South Africa in pursuit of a job opportunity, he looked at the country of his birth through an entrepreneurial lense. Where others might see a health system in crisis, Elliot saw a huge opportunity in using the latest technology to fill major gaps in the market.
He bought the rights for InTouch technologies in Southern Africa, launched the eHealth Group, and for the last four years has been working on gaining a foothold in the South African health industry.
Revolutionising an overstretched and disjointed healthcare system is not for the faint hearted, though. Healthcare is always a challenging industry, says Elliot, but a number of factors make it even more difficult in South Africa. Health administrators are often in crisis mode, and the fact that South African doctors are often not affiliated to specific hospitals as they are in the States makes it more difficult to establish a virtual medicine system. Not only do the hospitals, the insurance companies and the patients have to buy into the system, but specialist doctors have to be won over as a separate party also.
Yet Elliot is making good progress in setting up his first pilot sites, at a private hospital in Gauteng and at state facilities in the Western Cape.
As a financially independent entrepreneur, Elliot has been able to sustain himself while the eHealth Group is still in its pre-revenue stage, but the business needed to raise finance quickly in order to buy the initial demonstration devices.
Few institutions in South Africa are willing to fund a pre-revenue tech business in South Africa, but Business Partners Limited, who looks at both the ability and drive of the entrepreneur on the one hand and viability of the business on the other, decided to invest in the eHealth Group, in return for a 35% shareholding.
It is still early days for the eHealth Group, and although things tend to move at a slower pace than he would like them to, Elliot is confident that once his pilot sites are up and running this year, the clear benefits of his system will drive change throughout the health industry, and bring millions of South Africans closer to the healthcare they need.