With a growing disease burden, economic volatility and the potential of people living past 200 years of age, there is no doubt that global healthcare is entering uncharted territory. A new initiative by the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Surgical Society is offering students from across faculties the opportunity to join forces to help plot a new course for South Africa’s healthcare system by coming up with innovative solutions to some of the deeply-entrenched systemic problems.
Headed up by Liam Devenish (fourth-year MBChB/MSc), Sipho Ndereya (fourth-year MBChB) and Matthew Potter (final-year MBChB), the Futures in Health Accelerator Project takes the form of a student-run incubator that will assist multidisciplinary student teams to develop and nurture disruptive ideas that ultimately have the potential to improve healthcare in South Africa.
“The idea is that we upskill students in a variety of different disciplines with design thinking as the backbone, and then equip them further with certain deep dives in areas that are essential to health innovation,” Devenish explained.
Central to the Futures in Health programme is the concept of intersectoral collaboration – bringing together students from diverse backgrounds to foster change by working as teams.
“The idea is that we upskill students in a variety of different disciplines with design thinking as the backbone, and then equip them further with certain deep dives in areas that are essential to health innovation.”
As their website’s “About” page reads: “The buzz words here are multi-disciplinary and intersectoral collaboration: the more diverse your team, the better your chances of developing something with a wide impact on the ecosystem.”
Ndereya said they want participants from any and all faculties, “because it’s really about having people who are interested in enacting change”.
“So, whatever your background is doesn’t really matter because everyone is going to be out of their comfort zone at some point in the project.”
In order to gather a cohort of students willing to throw their hats in the ring and who are able to come up with unconventional and disruptive ideas, Devenish, Ndereya and Potter concentrated their recruitment efforts on a number of UCT societies whose members are already interested in some of the specific issues the programme will address.
Interested parties were directed to a four-step application process, which included gathering a team and completing a one-page response to a specific healthcare challenge.
The official project launch will take place on Tuesday, 7 May. During this event, the selected teams will be introduced to some of the key people they will be interacting with throughout.
How the programme works
The programme will span the course of four months, with three-hour sessions taking place once a week at the Innovation Hub and Wellness Centre at Groote Schuur Hospital.
For the first half of the programme, the focus will be on laying a strong foundation for idea development: identifying and understanding the problem with which teams are working.
Once a sound foundation has been laid, teams will be given access to facilities and coaches to help them iterate meaningful solutions to the problem. These could be anything from creating a digital health platform to setting up a proposal for a start-up company.
“This programme will hopefully offer teams a platform for meeting the right people and making useful contacts in order to take their ideas forward.”
At the end of the project, teams will have the opportunity to showcase their work at a final capstone event, where they will pitch to healthcare academics from UCT, policymakers from the Western Cape Department of Health and would-be investors from larger Cape Town-based incubators.
“It’s very easy to come up with a great idea, but how do you access the right channels to get it out there? This programme will hopefully offer teams a platform for meeting the right people and making useful contacts in order to take their ideas forward,” Potter said.
While these sorts of healthcare incubators are by no means a new concept, what sets the Futures in Health project apart is its focus on undergraduate students.
In the existing healthcare incubators in Cape Town, for instance, the barriers to entry for students and novices are a little too high, explained Potter.
“Our focus here is to foster through the undergraduate programme so that hopefully they can go on to get funding etc.”
Nick Loxton, president of the UCT Surgical Society, expressed their excitement about the programme, saying that it offers a unique opportunity to engage with students who aren’t in the healthcare field, but who want to help make a difference.
“Futures in Health is a great way to empower students to do something that really makes a massive change in society as a whole,” he said.
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