At the time of writing this, South Africa’s healthcare sector had conducted nearly four million COVID-19 tests with just under 650 000 positive cases identified. While infection rates continue to climb in much of the developed and developing world, stringent measures to contain the coronavirus in South Africa have helped flatten the curve to the point where most normal economic activity can resume.

While public efforts at hygiene and social distancing have certainly contributed greatly to the decline in daily case numbers, it’s undoubtedly the tireless work of the healthcare sector that has helped the country get through the greatest public health challenge in a century.

Efforts to treat infected patients were complicated by a prevailing shortage of medical staff. The World Bank estimates South Africa has only 0.9 medical doctors for every 1000 citizens, Kenya has 0.15, and in Nigeria it’s 0.38. Compare this to the UK, where the rate jumps to 2.8, or Switzerland where the rate is nearly 4.3 doctors per 1000 people.

Africa’s doctors and nurses often have to work longer hours treating more patients and with fewer resources than their peers in more developed markets. Overworked doctors are more prone to make mistakes, and the long-term effects of working under such conditions often lead to burn out.

With pressure on the healthcare sector now easing slightly, it’s vital that we consider what measures we can take to support the healthcare sector as it prepares for the next wave of COVID-19 infections – or a new, as-yet-unknown health emergency.

To help them prepare for the next major challenge, healthcare providers should design and implement digital transformation initiatives that help them with three key aspects, namely:

One: Understanding operations

The old saying “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” applies to healthcare too. Modern hospitals, for example, operate more like a business than a public service, with complex operational intricacies that make outdated paper-based processes completely ineffective.

Healthcare organisations should look at investing in new technology tools that allow for greater visibility across all operations and provides real-time insights into the performance of every aspect of the organisation (including the workforce and patients).

The ultimate goal is to create an intelligent healthcare enterprise that blends operational data and experience data (from patients and employees) and leverages new technologies such as AI and advanced analytics to improve decision-making and operational performance.

Using a cloud platform also equips the provider with greater agility – consider for example the impact of COVID-19 on a healthcare organisation that still relies entirely on on-premise technology. Adopting cloud platforms and cloud software is as much about the tools as it is about the mindset – being open to rapidly adopt new and relevant applications that cater for a specific need will allow organisations to react promptly and appropriately. For the organisation stuck in on-premise thinking, chances are that organisation’s response to the pandemic was not as effective as their nimbler, cloud-enabled peers.

Two: Understanding patients

While it’s true that the main purpose of healthcare organisations is to provide care for their patients, many patients today expect more than just care: they want a positive and personalised experience too. In fact, a PwC study found that nearly half (49%) of healthcare providers listed an improved patient experience as a top-three priority for the next five years.

Technology can play a key role here by removing friction in various stages of the customer journey and delivering personalised care at each step. This requires a deep understanding of each patient at an individual level. Healthcare organisations require the ability to collect patient data, identify risks, understand trends and communicate in a transparent and accurate way at scale, while balancing their focus on driving profitability without jeopardising patient experience.

A report on 55 studies found a positive association between patient experience, patient safety and clinical effectiveness. Using an experience management tool, healthcare organisations can develop a deeper understanding of each individual patient’s experience. This empowers them with insights that can guide the design of personalised interventions at each step and help healthcare providers build a consistently positive overall experience.

Three: Understanding healthcare workers

Considering the shortage of healthcare talent, healthcare providers should prioritise their workforce management efforts to ensure available talent is managed sustainably and with positive patient outcomes in mind.

One PwC study found that nearly three in every four (74%) healthcare workers would stay with an employer that offered training in new technologies that would help them meet future work demands. Seventy-five percent said the same would be important to them when considering an employer.

Improving the workplace experience for healthcare practitioners should therefore be a top priority for talent attraction and retention. Constant feedback is essential: an IBM study found that 87% of healthcare workers reported a positive experience when they feel their ideas and suggestions matter, while 81% said they felt positive about their work when they receive regular feedback on their performance.

Employee experience management tools such as Qualtrics can give healthcare organisations a real-time view into the experience of healthcare workers and deliver insights into trends and other factors influencing that experience. Using these insights, healthcare providers can develop appropriate interventions and support measures to ensure workers can focus on the core mandate of improving patient outcomes.

These three aspects all centre around understanding operations, patients and staff. Only once the holistic picture of a healthcare organisation’s financial and operating stance, its brand affinity and the associated shortfalls are truly understood can leaders of these organisations acknowledge what their starting point is.

Once this has been identified, healthcare organisations can begin to paint a realistic future for their businesses and adopt data-led transformation initiatives that will drive resilience and futureproof them against further health sector emergencies.