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Digital Health Technologies: The promise for universal health coverage

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Richard Dzikunu
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Oct 2, 2020

While healthcare is becoming increasingly digital, its accessibility in developing countries cannot keep up. As long as these nations lack the necessary internet infrastructure, digital skills, access, and education, the incredible promise of new digital health innovations will forever remain a glass ceiling. 

Solving this discrepancy, however, is no easy feat, and many questions arise in the process. Specifically, how can we strategically promote and implement digital health technologies? And who has access to the internet infrastructure, can they afford the costs associated with collecting and data? and lastly, do such users receive lifelong training and support to develop their skills and harness the benefits of digital health technologies that are being deployed at such speed?

According to the World Health Organization, the strategic and innovative use of digital health technologies will ensure that one billion more people benefit from universal health coverage. These technologies include the development of data, apps, and tools to assist both patients and healthy individuals by offering guidance about their health and lifestyle. Not only can this lead to affordable, scalable and personal healthcare, but it stresses that everyone has control over their health.  


Fundamental principles of digital health implementations

These developments are guided four main principles:

Healthcare is personal 

Everyone is different; from their genetic make-up, their medical history, and their experience, and thus what is needed for them to be healthy is also different. For this reason, the process of collecting and analysing data, and ultimately providing digital health advice will also be personal. 

Data needs to be reliable.

Any digital health innovations are worthless if transforming the raw data into advice is riddled with inaccuracies and remains detached from the problem at hand. To this end, valid and reliable predictive models have to be available, which benefit from large health databases, accessible to even the most isolated communities. 

Easy access and usability.

Data is of no use if it is difficult for users to collect, access, understand, and implement. While more and more data collection applications are being developed, affordability, user-friendliness, adaptability and accessibility should stand at the forefront of their functionality. Even the ability to operate in offline situations now enables reaching entire communities who are otherwise would be the last to receive the necessary infrastructure. 

Data protection

Most importantly; data must be well protected and secured. Collecting a lot of data, and specifically sensitive health-related information, is associated with a position of great responsibility. Besides ensuring that data is collected cautiously, it is very important to maintain transparency about which data is collected and its ultimate use. Creating and implementing safe digital health technologies is difficult but there are ways to make these solutions more resilient against attackers. Protecting user data must be a high priority and should never be ignored.

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Privacy, big data and digital health are inextricably linked, and this association must be upheld for these innovations to be effective and embraced. These developmental principles do more than just protect patients, but rapid technological innovation could also be transformative in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Many frontier technologies have shown great potential to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals 3, which strives to guarantee health and well-being for all, including a bold commitment to achieving universal health coverage. The utilization of digital technology in the health sector, including electronic data collection applications, such as Teamscope, remote doctor-patient consultations, and mobile applications, has changed how health professionals provide services and how patients receive care. But how can we make this more accessible? By providing affordable solutions that are user-friendly for both the physician and the patient, and that may also function in offline or poor-connection areas. By expanding the reach of these digital healthcare solutions, we are moving closer to guaranteeing health for all. 

We need to ensure, however, that no-one is left behind when scaling up digital health innovations. But how realistic is this? What are the biggest changes we can make to even the playing field? One clear candidate is the internet. The power of the internet, with its ability to connect billions of people, to enable access to unfathomable amounts of data and knowledge, is the crux to distributing and utilising these digital health solutions.  According to the World Bank, one out of five people in Africa still lacks access to the internet, including  over 200 million young people on the continent, while others, who are fortunate enough to be able to connect, still pay an estimated 75$ for 1GB of data. Until this fault in accessibility and affordability is solved, the nations will not see the benefits of these so-called “solutions”. 

The price to bring 1.1 billion more people online? 100 billion dollars. And so as we await this incredible investment, we need to maximize the use of existing infrastructure and limited resources. 

We need to act now by investing in digital health processes and approaches that work and have proven to help those who are most in need. Recognizing that digital health can fundamentally change health outcomes, current advocacy and policy recommendation must focus on enhancing research and development, innovation and collaboration across sectors.

Transform health

Transform health is one of the forefront coalitions dedicated to achieving universal health coverage in the digital age by campaigning and collaborating with individuals and communities who stand to benefit the most from digital health transformation. In the ongoing 75th session of the U.N. General Assembly, the coalition, together with Devex and other partners, convened digital health experts and practitioners to discuss the future of digital health technologies and the importance of closer coordination between digital health actors. The expert meeting provided the much-needed opportunity and a call to action to reflect on current lessons, challenges, and efforts to accelerate access to care and harness the potential of data and digital health tools to advance Universal Health Coverage.

While engaging in policy dialogues and advocacy to shape the digital health process, there is the need to resource those at the forefront of implementing and using these technologies to save lives and improve health outcomes. It is crucial to invest in community health workforce capacity to use sustainable, efficient, and cost-effective digital systems and tools. Further connecting the unconnected in rural and remote areas that live out of reach of traditional cellular mobile networks will require robust dialogues and frameworks that actively involve the private sector to complement government efforts and funding.

Teamscope

Teamscope is one of few digital health applications empowering frontline community health workers to collect data for clinical and field research. The easy-to-use application enables frontline health workers to create their own mobile forms, visualize data, and most significantly, collect data even without internet access. Teamscope is working to address the problem of communities being left behind as a result of lack of access to the internet.


We may be far from reaching the USD100 billion investment. However, working smart, investing in proven and tested digital health applications, addressing digital inclusion for vulnerable groups, and building capacity to use technologies and collaborating across all sectors will help ensure that no one is left behind in this digital age. 

COVID-19 reinforces the need for internet infrastructure connectivity in Africa 

Not only do digital health innovations significantly contribute to achieving universal health coverage, but could fundamentally influence the effectiveness of a nation’s response to an unexpected health crisis, such as a pandemic. When infectious diseases begin to spread within a population, their transmission is enabled by the lack of understanding of its dynamics, and consequently a slow or ineffective response. With the necessary digital infrastructure, data can be collected (also using mobile data collection apps) and shared, compiled, analysed and visualised. The faster and more widespread this process, the better a nation can distribute the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), vital medical equipment, and greatest use of limited healthcare professionals. 

We still have a lot to learn from the recent COVID-19 pandemic, which has infected 34 million people, and already claimed the lives of over a million people worldwide. At the start of this crisis, data on this elusive virus were only slowly gathered, but mobile data collection quickly helped to elucidate high-risk patients and guide further medical interventions. This data collection, however, wasn’t available everywhere. And while it seems that the rate of growth of COVID-19 cases in the african continent are slowing down, the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian relief body, believes that the true true scale of the pandemic may be hidden because of a lack of testing and issues with data.

This pandemic is creating a vicious cycle of insufficient infrastructure in developing nations. A lack of digital health innovations limits an effective virus response, which worsens necessary investments for sufficient infrastructure, and again, struggling with future waves of infections. This downward spiral drives a further discrepancy between developed and developing nations. 

As digital health becomes more prevalent during and as predicted after the pandemic, its determinants such as communication technologies and access to equipment, broadband, and the internet should be prioritized in the various national and international stakeholder conversations and long-term investment plans.

Conclusion

Global discrepancies in implementing and utilising digital health interventions does not only affect the present, but can lead to exponential differences in the future. Health is a fundamental right, and achieving universal health coverage should be in the interests of everyone. If the coronavirus crisis has taught us one thing, it is that in an increasingly connected and digital world, the weakest link can have a global effect. Investments should aim to level the playing field, broadening the affordability and accessibility to the internet will enable the wide-spread use of big data, mobile data collection applications, and digital health tools to increase global health. Now, more than ever, we need to ensure no one is left behind.

Richard's avatar

Richard Dzikunu

Richard Dzikunu is a United Nations award-winning youth activist with a track record for influencing adolescent health policy and proven strategic communications, grassroots mobilization, and advocacy skills. In 2018, he received the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Action Campaign Award, the first of its kind, from the United Nations at the Global Festival of Action for Sustainable Development in Bonn, Germany. Richard has a unique combination of advocacy work experience at the community, national and international level for reproductive health and rights, primary health care, and youth-led engagement. He currently serves as a facilitator for the Young Experts: Tech 4 Health. Follow him on Twitter.

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