Tag: 12/2/24

Patient-centred Health Care: The NHI Revolution You Deserve

A patient-centred health system will remain an illusion under the NHI unless the public health system is ramped up to better serve users and a clear path is outlined for public-private partnerships, argue Bernard Mutsago and Haseena Majid.

By Bernard Mutsago and Haseena Majid

National Health Insurance (NHI) is South Africa’s chosen financing vehicle for Universal Health Coverage (UHC). The plan is a step closer to being a reality after the NHI bill was passed by Parliament’s National Council of Provinces on 6 December 2023. The legislation aims for a single NHI fund that will buy services from public and private providers, it will be free at the point of delivery, and will prevent medical schemes from covering services that the NHI provides. The bill is likely to soon be signed into law by President Cyril Ramaphosa, although it may take years before all sections of the bill will come into force.

However, achieving a universal, affordable, high-quality, comprehensive, and patient-focused health system under the NHI will remain an illusion unless shortcomings of the public health system is fixed to meet the needs of the public. This can be achieved through a structured system that enables efficient and equitable pooling and distribution of resources across the public, private, and civil society sectors to improve service delivery.

As it stands, the absence of a clear framework for public-private partnerships in health service delivery is a barrier to progressive planning.

South Africa, over the last decade, has seen a significant decline in the state of its health sector. Despite initiatives such as the primary healthcare (PHC) re-engineering programme, and outreach services to improve service access, the health system faces a myriad of challenges. Budget constraints have crippled our human resource capacity. Corruption, maladministration, and neglect have resulted in the decay of facilities and their inability to withstand the increasing demands for basic and complex health services.

Most importantly, the data management system, public administration processes, and the referral pathways require significant intervention to align with the digital age and the potential role of artificial intelligence to improve health service delivery. The result is a poorly representative and possibly outdated set of data indicators to inform health service delivery needs that are contextual to geographic and institutional needs.

Applying a blanket approach to health interventions, in the absence of a significantly strengthened data collection and assessment pathway has led to questionable methods to achieving universal healthcare via NHI. The implementation of NHI pilot sites in the build-up to delivering the NHI has failed to show how the health system will move from the current curative approach to a more patient-centred approach. Failing to establish the patient-centred pathway at the onset from the public administration and health service delivery system, will result in the ongoing reality of some people being unable to access the health services closest to them at the lowest cost. It also has an extended impact on preventive strategies for better health outcomes.

South Africa has a fragmented, two-tiered and inequitable health system in which about only 17% of the population in 2018 had medical aid coverage, while more than 80% of the population are largely dependent on the public health sector. This is according to the Competition Commission’s final Health Market Inquiry report, released in November 2019.

The pathway to universal healthcare should entail crucial actions like maintaining and strengthening healthcare infrastructure and implementing strategic initiatives to bolster the workforce through robust recruitment, retention drives, and public-private collaborations.

But attention to these vital steps have been diverted by the government’s emphasis on a specific funding model -the NHI – The plan has faced considerable pushback with criticism, , largely rooted in the government’s inability to deliver essential services, theft due to corruption and cadre deployment, to the detriment of health users. These concerns  have been ignored. Instead, the determination to move ahead with the NHI amid outcries from the health sector, academics, and civil society is likely driven by politics.

Lessons from Ghana

Ghana’s failed NHI experiment is a luminous example for many countries attempting different financing models for delivering UHC. Ghana’s attempted NHI approach was taken off the national policy agenda due to public political opposition, weak civil society mobilisation, and low trust in the political leadership. This begs the question of whether due diligence was taken by the crafters of the NHI to establish the viability and sustainability of this model within the South African context.

Government needs fertile collaboration to materialise any policy goals. Whereas the NHI Bill has already been passed by the legislature, the successful implementation of the policy is dependent on people beyond the political realm. Engagements to structure and implement the operational plan for the NHI requires that government take on an approach that shows its willingness and commitment to take input from across all sectors, embrace the criticism, and find an approach that unifies all actors within the health sector and financing space.

Public-private partnership 

A well-designed public-private partnership model, with strong monitoring and evaluation processes could offer an opportunity to create the foundation for a medium-term solution. This could improve resource capacity in the public health sector to address the current health service backlogs, improve health infrastructure and technology, and create a functional system between the public and private health sectors to harvest  accurate health data. A strengthened data collection system that is inclusive and reflective of all users of the health system is after all essential to craft a responsive health system rather than a reactive one, thus placing the patient central to the health system.

Additionally, structures for community participation to inform healthcare service delivery, such as clinic committees and hospital boards, need to be bolstered as they are currently poorly functioning or non-existent. Including all voices, especially those of the public and clinicians, is critical for establishing  a capable health system that offers equitable health access for all people. This is only achievable through amplified voices and a united call for government to urgently re-evaluate its current approach toward NHI implementation.

*Mutsago is a health policy analyst, health equity activist, and primary healthcare enthusiast and Majid is a Global Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity in South Africa and director of public health programmes at civil society organisation Usawa.

Republished from Spotlight under a Creative Commons licence.

Source: Spotlight

Clues to Ponatinib’s Deadly Side Effects could Make it a Safer Cancer Drug

Pexels Photo by Freestocksorg

For some leukaemia patients, the only potential chemotherapy option is ponatinib, a drug that also carries a high risk of heart failure. This means that some patients who recover from their cancer will end up dying of heart disease brought on by the cure.

In a new study, researchers from the University of Illinois Chicago and other universities have identified mechanisms that cause ponatinib to harm the heart. They also identified a promising treatment that could reverse this process.

The paper, with senior author Sang Ging Ong, assistant professor of pharmacology and medicine at UIC, is published in Circulation Research. The study is part of a growing field called cardio-oncology that investigates drugs that shrink tumours but can also cause heart problems.

While there are three options of drugs for treating chronic myeloid leukaemia, many patients are resistant to the other two, leaving ponatinib as their only choice.

“These patients have no other options for treatment,” Ong said, despite the concerns about the drug’s side effects.

In fact, ponatinib was pulled from the market for a few months after its introduction in 2012 because of concerns about heart problems.

The researchers were interested in understanding the interaction between ponatinib and the heart cells responsible for contraction.

They discovered that ponatinib damages these cells by activating a process known as the integrated stress response.

The mechanism for this is related to the functioning of a kinase (an enzyme involved in energy transfer) called GCN2.

The researchers found that ponatinib, despite being a kinase inhibitor, actually activates GCN2, which in turn switches on the integrated stress response.

While this response isn’t always a bad thing, normally protecting cells, it can also lead to their death under prolonged stress.

To see if this response was harming the cells, the researchers studied what would happen if they used a small molecule to block the integrated stress response in both cells and in mice during ponatinib treatment.

They found that the treatment helped protect heart cells from the damaging side effects of the drug yet did not diminish ponatinib’s tumour-fighting efficacy.

“It protects the heart but at the same time, it still allows us to kill cancer cells,” Ong said.

More research is needed to know if this protective measure would work well in humans, Ong said.

The mechanisms they identified are important in other cardiac diseases, as well, which could lead to future research on how to protect cells against different conditions.

Source: University of Illinois Chicago

Among Cancer Survivors, Physical Activity is Linked to Reduced Pain

Study shows that higher levels of physical activity are linked with less pain, and to a similar extent in adults with and without a history of cancer.

Photo by Barbara Olsen on Pexels

People who have had cancer often experience ongoing pain, but a new study reveals that being physically active may help lessen its intensity. The study is published by Wiley online in CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society.

Although physical activity has been shown to lessen various types of pain, its effects on cancer-related pain are unclear. To investigate, a team led by senior author Erika Rees-Punia, PhD, MPH, of the American Cancer Society, and first author Christopher T.V. Swain, PhD, of the University of Melbourne, in Australia, analysed information pertaining to 51 439 adults without a history of cancer and 10,651 adults with a past cancer diagnosis. Participants were asked, “How would you rate your pain on average,” with responses ranging from 0 (no pain) to 10 (worst pain imaginable). Participants were also asked about their usual physical activity.

US guidelines recommend 150 minutes (2 hours 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes (1 hour 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours 30 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity.

Based on participants’ responses, the investigators found that, for individuals who had cancer in the past as well as for those without a history of cancer, more physical activity was linked with lower pain intensity. The extent of the association was similar for both groups of individuals, indicating that exercise may reduce cancer-related pain just as it does for other types of pain that have been studied in the past.

Among participants with a past cancer diagnosis, those exceeding physical activity guidelines were 16% less likely to report moderate-to-severe pain compared to those who failed to meet physical activity guidelines. Also, compared with people who remained inactive, those who were consistently active or became active in older adulthood reported less pain.

“It may feel counterintuitive to some, but physical activity is an effective, non-pharmacologic option for reducing many types of pain. As our study suggests, this may include pain associated with cancer and its treatments,” said Dr Rees-Punia. 

Source: Wiley

Visualising Multiple Sclerosis with a New MRI Procedure

This is a pseudo-colored image of high-resolution gradient-echo MRI scan of a fixed cerebral hemisphere from a person with multiple sclerosis. Credit: Govind Bhagavatheeshwaran, Daniel Reich, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health

A key feature of multiple sclerosis (MS) is that it causes the patient’s own immune system to attack and destroy the myelin sheaths in the central nervous system. To date, it hasn’t been possible to visualise the myelin sheaths well enough to use this information for the diagnosis and monitoring of MS.  Now researchers have developed a new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) procedure that maps the condition of the myelin sheaths more accurately than was previously possible.

The researchers successfully tested the procedure on healthy people for the first time, and published their results in Magnetic Resonance in Medicine.

In the future, the MRI system with its special head scanner could help doctors to recognise MS at an early stage and better monitor the progression of the disease.

This technology, developed by the researchers at ETH Zurich and University of Zurich, led by Markus Weiger and Emily Baadsvik from the Institute for Biomedical Engineering, could also facilitate the development of new drugs for MS. But it doesn’t end there: the new MRI method could also be used by researchers to better visualise other solid tissue types such as connective tissue, tendons and ligaments.

Quantitative myelin maps

Conventional MRI devices capture only inaccurate, indirect images of the myelin sheaths because these devices typically work by reacting to water molecules in the body that have been stimulated by radio waves in a strong magnetic field.

But the myelin sheaths, which wrap around the nerve fibres in several layers, consist mainly of fatty tissue and proteins. That said, there is some water – known as myelin water – trapped between these layers.

Standard MRIs build their images primarily using the signals of the hydrogen atoms in this myelin water, rather than imaging the myelin sheaths directly.

The ETH researchers’ new MRI method solves this problem and measures the myelin content directly.

It puts numerical values on MRI images of the brain to show how much myelin is present in a particular area compared to other areas of the image.

A number 8, for instance, means that the myelin content at this point is only 8 percent of a maximum value of 100, which indicates a significant thinning of the myelin sheaths.

Essentially, the darker the area and the smaller the number in the image, the more the myelin sheaths have been reduced.

This information ought to enable doctors to better assess the severity and progression of MS.

Measuring signals within millionths of a second

It is difficult however to image the myelin sheaths directly, since the signals that the MRI triggers in the tissue are very short-lived; the signals that emanate from the myelin water last much longer.

“Put simply, the hydrogen atoms in myelin tissue move less freely than those in myelin water. That means they generate much briefer signals, which disappear again after a few microseconds,” Weiger says, adding: “And bearing in mind a microsecond is a millionth of a second, that’s a very short time indeed.” A conventional MRI scanner can’t capture these fleeting signals because it doesn’t take the measurements fast enough.

To solve this problem, the researchers used a specially customised MRI head scanner that they have developed over the past ten years together with the companies Philips and Futura.

This scanner is characterised by a particularly strong gradient in the magnetic field.

“The greater the change in magnetic field strength generated by the three scanner coils, the faster information about the position of hydrogen atoms can be recorded,” Baadsvik says.

Generating such a strong gradient calls for a strong current and a sophisticated design.

As the researchers scan only the head, the magnetic field is more contained and concentrated than with conventional devices.

In addition, the system can quickly switch from transmitting radio waves to receiving signals; the researchers and their industry partners have developed a special circuit for this purpose.

The researchers have already successfully tested their MRI procedure on tissue samples from MS patients and on two healthy individuals. Next, they want to test it on MS patients themselves. Whether the new MRI head scanner will make its way into hospitals in the future now depends on the medical industry. “We’ve shown that our process works,” Weiger says. “Now it’s up to industry partners to implement it and bring it to market.”

Source: ETH Zurich

New Spiral-shaped Lens is a Step up from Multifocal Lenses

Researchers have developed a new type of lens that uses a spiral-shaped surface to maintain a clear focus at different distances in varying light conditions. Credit: Laurent Galinier

Researchers have developed a spiral-shaped lens that maintains clear focus at different distances in varying light conditions. The new lens, described in Optica, works much like progressive lenses used for vision correction but without the distortions typically seen with those lenses. It could help advance contact lens technologies, intraocular implants for cataracts and miniaturised imaging systems.

“Unlike existing multifocal lenses, our lens performs well under a wide range of light conditions and maintains multifocality regardless of the size of the pupil,” said Bertrand Simon from Photonics, Numerical and Nanosciences Laboratory (LP2N), a joint research unit between the Institut d’Optique Graduate School, the University of Bordeaux and the CNRS in France. “For potential implant users or people with age-related farsightedness, it could provide consistently clear vision, potentially revolutionising ophthalmology.”

In the article, the researchers describe the new lens, which they call the spiral diopter. Its spiraling features are arranged in a way that creates many separate points of focus – much like having multiple lenses in one. This makes it possible to see clearly at various distances.

“In addition to ophthalmology applications, the simple design of this lens could greatly benefit compact imaging systems,” said Simon. “It would streamline the design and function of these systems while also offering a way to accomplish imaging at various depths without additional optical elements. These capabilities, coupled with the lens’s multifocal properties, offer a powerful tool for depth perception in advanced imaging applications”

Creating a vortex of light

The inspiration for the spiral lens design came when the paper’s first author, Laurent Galinier from SPIRAL SAS in France, was analysing the optical properties of severe corneal deformations in patients. This led him to conceptualize a lens with a unique spiral design that causes light to spin, like water going down a drain. This phenomenon, known as an optical vortex, creates multiple clear focus points, which allow the lens to provide clear focus at different distances.

“Creating an optical vortex usually requires multiple optical components,” said Galinier. “Our lens, however, incorporates the elements necessary to make an optical vortex directly into its surface. Creating optical vortices is a thriving field of research, but our method simplifies the process, marking a significant advancement in the field of optics.”

The researchers created the lens by using advanced digital machining to mold the unique spiral design with high precision. They then validated the lens by using it to image a digital ‘E,’ much like those used on an optometrist’s light-up board. The authors observed that the image quality remained satisfactory regardless of the aperture size used. They also discovered that the optical vortices could be modified by adjusting the topological charge, which is essentially the number of windings around the optical axis. Volunteers using the lenses also reported noticeable improvements in visual acuity at a variety of distances and lighting conditions.

Crossing disciplines

Bringing the new lens to fruition required combining the intuitively crafted design with advanced fabrication techniques through a cross-disciplinary collaboration. “The spiral diopter lens, first conceived by an intuitive inventor, was scientifically substantiated through an intensive research collaboration with optical scientists,” said Simon. “The result was an innovative approach to creating advanced lenses.”

The researchers are now working to better understand the unique optical vortices produced by their lens. They also plan to perform systematic trials of the lens’ ability to correct vision in people to comprehensively establish its performance and advantages in real-world conditions. In addition, they are exploring the possibility of applying the concept to prescription eyeglasses, which could potentially offer users clear vision across multiple distances.

“This new lens could significantly improve people’s depth of vision under changing lighting conditions,” said Simon. “Future developments with this technology might also lead to advancements in compact imaging technologies, wearable devices and remote sensing systems for drones or self-driving cars, which could make them more reliable and efficient.”

Source: Optic