Tue, Oct 16, 2018 - Page 9 News List

The future of global digital health is a reason for optimism

By Ann Aerts and Harald Nusser

In his recent best-selling book Factfulness, the late international health expert Hans Rosling shows that horrors such as natural disasters, oil spills and battlefield deaths are trending steeply downward, and that harvest yields, literacy rates and other development indicators are on the rise. Taking a fact and evidence-based approach, Rosling makes the case for optimism in what seems like an increasingly chaotic world.

There is also cause for optimism in the realm of global health, and for a simple reason. Just as the Industrial Revolution produced far-reaching advances in medicine, the ongoing digital revolution will allow us to improve healthcare in ways that were hard to imagine just a few years ago.

Almost every country in the world has committed to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, an international agenda for improving the wellbeing of humanity and the planet that sustains it. In terms of global health, the goals aim to eliminate preventable child deaths and major epidemics, and to achieve universal health coverage.

Though highly ambitious, the goals are eminently achievable. We need only seize the opportunities offered by the Internet, mobile devices and other digital technologies, which are already expanding healthcare access and improving quality of care in hard-to-reach communities.

Consider India. Earlier this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government introduced “Modicare,” the world’s largest government-funded health insurance program, which will cover up to 40 percent of India’s 1.3 billion citizens. The government aims to halt the rise of non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes and cancer, while preventing poverty-inducing healthcare expenditures at the household level. In a country the size of India, the program relies heavily on technology to link people with healthcare services, to store and analyze patient data, and to prevent catastrophes that could arise from mixing up patients’ health records.

Digital technology can also ensure that patients in remote areas receive care from highly skilled providers. In the Novartis Foundation’s telemedicine program in Ghana, 70 percent of provider-patient consultations are handled by telephone, thus sparing patients from arduous journeys to primary-care centers.

Digital technologies are also revolutionizing health education. In isolated regions, health workers often travel on foot for hours to receive training and many inevitably end up without the training they need.

However, now healthcare providers can receive training from anywhere by way of smartphones and tablets.

One of our partners, Last Mile Health, has created an entire digital platform specifically tailored for community health education. These and other efforts are decentralizing healthcare provision and training, and empowering local practitioners — all of which is essential for achieving universal health coverage.

Needless to say, digital technologies will also be driving the next wave of life-changing therapies. Social-networking technologies have already made recruitment for clinical trials more efficient, and artificial intelligence and predictive analytics have allowed for trials to be conducted much faster.

However, across the digital landscape, it is broadband that will deliver some of the most significant improvements of all. In low-income countries, high-speed Internet can be a game-changer at every level of the health system.

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