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MedTech

All Locked Up

Katherine Graham looks at two start-ups challenging queues in public health clinics.

Smart lockers are a common sight at garages and stores around South Africa, where customers use them to pick up goods ordered online. They’re also taking off in public clinics. Using digital technology, where they enable patients with chronic diseases to pick up their repeat prescriptions while avoiding lengthy queues.

For 31-year-old Neo Hutiri, founder of Technovera, his journey to designing the Pelebox smart locker began when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2014. Every month, he needed to pick up medicine from a clinic and this took him hours. The electrical engineer decided to do something about it and the Pelebox was born.

Now his business is scooping awards, including the 2019 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation from Britain’s Royal Academy of Engineering. “The public healthcare system is so often under strain and Pelebox can take a lot of pressure off clinics that fill repeat prescriptions for regular patients,” explains Hutiri.

How Do Smart Lockers Work?

“The Pelebox smart locker is essentially a wall of lockers, which look a bit like an old-fashioned postbox wall,” says Hutiri. Clinic staff fill the boxes with prescription medicine and log it onto the system, while patients then get an SMS on their cellphone advising that their monthly medicine is ready, as well as a one-time PIN.

At the clinic’s smart locker, patients enter the PIN, the corresponding box opens and they retrieve their medicine. What could take three hours waiting in a queue now takes under a minute and costs the Department of Health less than R9 per script filled.

Hutiri isn’t the only one attempting to address the issue. Also entering mainstream use is the Pharmacy Dispensing Unit (PDU), by Right ePharmacy. Instead of containing a wall of boxes, this smart locker looks more like a bank ATM. The PDU uses integrated cloud-based technology to notify patients and dispense medicine. If necessary, a pharmacist can also be contacted via an audio-visual link.

“Once a parcel is delivered into a smart locker, patients automatically receive notification of their parcel delivery in the form of a one-time PIN and access instructions,” explains Thato Mathabathe, operations manager of Right ePharmacy. “They then enter the PIN on the smart-locker screen and the door to the locker containing their medicine parcel opens.”

 Benefits Of Smart Lockers

It sounds like a vending machine for medicine, except that smart lockers are highly sophisticated machines with air conditioning units and temperature sensors. Most importantly, they are easing the burden placed on overworked clinic staff and helping TB, AIDS and diabetes sufferers to stay on their medication.

According to the World Health Organisation, SA has the world’s largest antiretroviral programme, with 4.3 million people on ARVs. With the Pelebox (pele means “quickly” in seTswana), thousands of people are spared from queuing every month.

“It’s not just solving the problem that patients on chronic medication have, it’s also improving the healthcare system overall,” states Hutiri.

What makes smart boxes so appealing is that they can be installed anywhere, not just at state clinics. “Collection sites can be placed in central, easily-accessible locations, such as shopping centres on main transport routes and are open on weekends and public holidays,” comments Mathabathe.

So far, Right ePharmacy has installed five PDUs, which have serviced more than 130 000 patients. “The smart boxes have been rolled out in Mangaung in the Free State and a roll out in the City of Johannesburg will take place later this year,” Mathabane says.

Pelebox has also set up five smart lockers in Gauteng, with plans to install 14 more this year. Hutiri says that smart lockers make healthcare more patient-centric: “They represent alternative ways of reaching patients, thus ensuring that core clinic resources can now focus on consulting with patients rather than on dispensing.”

Image: Neo Oatway

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