Read the Conversation

EF: 2020 was the year of diagnostics, and 2021 was the year of vaccines; what do you think 2022 will be?

AS: It will be the year of rejuvenating and returning to normalcy as the financial focus deviated towards covid in the last two years. The omicron variant spread was mild here in South Africa, which left hospitals with more room for patients with other conditions, and it gave us hope. The current indicators show that investments in healthcare are returning to normality.

EF: With diagnostics and prevention at the centre of attention, what is the role of Siemens in this?

AS: Our company focuses on precision medicine; misdiagnosis can lead to repetition in procedures and unwarranted interventions. The preventative approach is economically beneficial for both the provider and the customer. It is cost-inefficient to misdiagnose and mistreat. The promulgation of regulations and the development of vaccines were the fastest we had ever seen. We learned that processes could be sped up.

EF: How do you think collaborations and partnerships will impact the industry's future?

AS: There is better access when collaborators pool their resources together, we also see interventions happen at a faster rate. The collaboration between governments and the healthcare sector was fruitful in response to COVID-19. The response covid got was beneficial because the response to other viral conditions will be the same or even better in the future. Collaboration and investment in other companies lead to accelerated access in the region.

EF: In access, what are the biggest challenges you face in South Africa?

AS: In this part of the world, access to care means appropriate technology, affordable healthcare, and technology availability in all communities; the portfolio should fit the country. Each country’s economic portfolio determines the number of access people will have. Digitalization can improve remote access to healthcare. An example of remote access that would be highly beneficial is teleradiology. Within Siemens Healthineers, we have an initiative for remote access to healthcare. This initiative is already taking place here in South Africa, with 37 hospitals. Digitalization and access to healthcare are synonymous because we can leverage digitalization to improve access. The vaccine initiative is about access to care.  

EF: How do you rate the adaptation to digitalization in the entire region?

AS: Developing countries and regions adapt to digitalization better and faster. There is an increased mobile app usage in Africa. The challenge we face is infrastructure. Sometimes there are no network platforms to enable digitalization. The regions quickly adapt to digitalization because the general population is young. There is even a willingness to digitalize. Implementing the infrastructure for digitalization is faster than analogue systems.  

With our current initiative, patients will now be able to store their records digitally. We have combined this with AI analysis technology. This means that when a patient takes a test or does a scan and their information is uploaded into their file, the system analyses the data and gives a result which makes the diagnosis process faster.  

EF: How are physicians and doctors adapting to the new technology in South Africa?

AS: There are mixed reactions among physicians and health workers. Some physicians do have concerns regarding their positions as technology increases its role, but this is something we are educating them on. A doctor or specialist can never be replaced by digitalization, they will always be the decision-makers. There is an innovative mindset in South Africa, which allows people to adapt to digitalization and change quickly.  

Technology and digitalization are tools. These tools serve physicians by helping them become faster and more efficient. There will never be enough doctors in developing regions and countries like South Africa. Currently, doctors need to be as quick and efficient as possible to help more patients. Digitalization should be a required tool rather than a feared one. It bridges the distance between the patient and the doctor, meaning physical distance will no longer be a limiting factor. It also creates personalized care.  

EF: Is there a project within your pipeline that you are excited about?

AS: We have a live AI system called AI-Rad Companion, which interprets medical images and gives back analyzed data, thus increasing diagnosis precision; it aids physicians and radiologists in making a faster diagnosis. It has already been commercialized and is available.

EF: Do you think AI helps in prevention and early diagnosis?

AS: There are medical watches that monitor patients. The doctor can identify when there is a change in the patient's vitals, like blood pressure, which would prompt them to get the patient in for a consultation. This is one of the examples of how AI can lead to prevention and early diagnosis.  

The pandemic brought a health awareness shift that has led to increased healthcare knowledge and action. Many patients are researching their symptoms and ailments because they are curious. Keeping fit, eating well, and drinking a lot of water have become the new normal for many people. People are now more health-conscious and putting more effort into their health and healthcare. Patients are becoming consumers.  

If healthcare information is not imparted and appropriately taught, cases like the resistance to vaccines will rise. If change management is left to individuals, it will be open for interpretation. That is why there is so much falsified data about wellness out there. As a healthcare industry, we have to step up and bring more awareness to how people can be healthier.

EF: Is Siemens Healthineers educating and informing people about health?

AS: We are more focused on educating physicians and health workers in a structured manner; after teaching healthcare workers, they go to the patient level and teach patients the importance of healthcare. We have some cooperative initiatives that train healthcare professionals in preventative measures. An example is the breast cancer prevention campaign we are currently running.  

EF: What does the future of work look like?

AS: In general, workers now see each other as remote colleagues because of the hybrid working system that people have adopted. The focus is now on remote work. There is no geological barrier when people work remotely. The one challenge that many employees may face during remote work is the one-way system. One person tends to make decisions independently and communicate that decision to the rest of the team. Teams should develop ways to get all the team members to contribute. Many digital platforms can be used to share, track and meet with groups. Ultimately the future approach to work is remote work.  

EF: When hiring new people, what skill set do you look for?

AS: Digital expertise and being digital savvy is now a crucial skill. Companies are digitalizing rapidly; that is why the people hired should be digitally savvy.

April 2022
South Africa