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An Innovative App is Bridging the Gap Between Vulnerable Communities and Specialized Healthcare in South Africa

The first-of-its-kind app provides a safe and secure platform for health workers to refer patients and share advice.
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Frontline health workers need access to specialist advice and services. This is especially true for nurses in South Africa, who provide most primary healthcare services. The public sector health systems need accurate referral pattern data to optimize the use of scarce human resources, particularly specialist services.

Since 2014, Vula Mobile has provided a cost-effective digital solution to make specialized healthcare accessible to remote, underserved South African communities. The Johnson & Johnson Center for Health Worker Innovation, with support from the Johnson & Johnson Foundation, is working to grow the usage of Vula Mobile in the public health sector in South Africa. The collaboration is focused on supporting nurses by connecting them to specialist services and strengthening data analytics for referrals and health communication.

The system connects frontline healthcare workers in public and rural healthcare facilities directly with medical specialists, and helps to facilitate efficient communication and expedite treatment. It also provides data analytics regarding communication and referral patterns to meet the needs of professionals and health system administrators.

The solution’s reach and community impact since inception is significant:

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Meeting the need for disruptive technology in South Africa

Although telehealth solutions increased during COVID-19, most existing solutions only cover the primary healthcare sector, limiting secondary or specialized healthcare options.

"The future of Vula is pivotal in South Africa, where working between private and public is going to become much more intense. For that reason, it puts specialists in contact across both settings.”
Dr Michelle Redelinghuys, Khayelitsha Hospital, Western Cape

In South Africa, delayed communication between primary and secondary healthcare sectors makes specialized medical consultation offered by major provincial hospitals inaccessible to underserved patients in rural communities.

Long distances, expensive transportation costs and overburdened facilities often exacerbate the challenges in accessing specialized healthcare services and in visiting medical specialists in large hospitals. Although medical consultation facilitated through digital methods have increased during the pandemic, concerns remain about data security and the protection of patients’ personal and medical information. Confidentiality issues, maintaining solution integrity and speed of information transfers create another layer of complexity in accessing specialized treatment.

Vula Mobile offers healthcare solutions that target the secondary market and connect health workers from remote and underserved communities with medical specialists, through a mobile application, to help efficiently treat patients—while ensuring that patient information is collected, processed, and stored securely, and shared only with relevant specialists attending to a patient’s case.

"You may find a nurse or a junior doctor that’s often without support on the periphery. By being available and accessible, you are able to help them, and they don’t feel alone or unsupported.”
Sa’ad Lahri, Head of Emergency Medicine, Khayelitsha Hospital, Western Cape

Vula has brought about significant improvement to South Africa’s rural healthcare, enabling health workers from rural clinics to contact specialists at major provincial hospitals and share a form designed for each medical specialization along with results from tailored clinical tools. This information helps specialists determine and remotely make a call as to whether a case can be treated locally in the clinic or requires referral. Furthermore, Vula Mobile tech specialists support health workers in managing patients remotely, reducing the number of unnecessary referrals and laying the foundation for efficient access to specialist centers for underserved communities.

The solution eliminates delaying the dissemination of life-saving information and helps health facilities and workers provide timely treatment to patients. It also facilitates training and assessment solutions for medical and nursing students completing their internships in South Africa. Students work with facilitators who add and review case studies through the Vula platform, enabling young doctors and nurses to learn through real-life patient scenarios.

Feedback from healthcare workers using the platform is positive, which CEO and founder of Vula Mobile Dr William Mapham says is the greatest reward. “The Vula team and I are dedicated to improving the working lives of health workers and specialists; in turn, this improves the care for patients,” he says. “We are currently running at one patient helped per minute. With the support and partnerships from the Johnson & Johnson Center for Health Worker Innovation and other entities, we look forward to working towards one patient per second.”

Vula Mobile has been recognised as the first tech-based solution of its kind in South Africa—the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ranks Vula Mobile as one of The Top 4 Most Innovative Entrepreneurs in Healthcare, the app is an Extreme Tech Challenge (XTC) 2022 Global Finalist and it has been named a Top 45 emerging start-up with biggest impact potential in Africa in the 2022 AfricaTech Awards.