A Digital Path to Better Healthcare

Mobile technology is laying the foundation for the future of healthcare, but it doesn't have to be flashy.

Ann Aerts | Novartis Foundation

Africa has changed remarkably, and for the better, since I first worked as a young doctor in Angola some 20 years ago. But no change has been more obvious than the way the continent has adopted mobile technology.

People in Africa – and, indeed, throughout low- and middle-income countries – are seizing the opportunities that technology provides: using mobile phones for everything from making payments to issuing birth certificates and gaining access to healthcare.

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The benefit of mobile technologies lies in access. Barriers like geographical distance and low resources, which have long prevented billions of people from getting the care they need, are much easier to overcome in the digital age.

And, indeed, there are countless ways in which technology can be deployed to improve healthcare access and delivery.

Of course, this is not new information. A growing number of technology-based health initiatives have taken shape in recent years. But only a few reached scale and achieved long-term sustainability. The majority of projects have not made it past the pilot phase.

Getting results

The result is a highly fragmented landscape of digital solutions – one that in some cases can add strain to existing health systems.

The first step to addressing this problem is identifying which factors breed success – and which impede it. Perhaps the most important observation relates to how the solution is linked to the reality on the ground.

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Technology is an enabler for the innovation of healthcare delivery, not an end in itself.

After all, technology is an enabler for the innovation of healthcare delivery, not an end in itself.

Solutions that focus on end users, whether health practitioners or patients, have the best chance of succeeding.

Users don’t always need the most advanced technologies. They need solutions that can be implemented.

In fact, seemingly outdated technologies like voice and text messages can be far more useful tools for the intended users than the latest apps or cutting-edge innovations in, say, nanotechnology.

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Real solutions

Consider the Community-based Hypertension Improvement Project in Ghana, run by the Novartis Foundation and FHI 360.

The project helps patients self-manage their condition through regular mobile medication reminders, as well as advice on necessary lifestyle changes.

This approach is successful because it is patient-centered and leverages information and communication technology (ICT) tools that are readily available and commonly used.

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By remaining focused on the reality of end users and on priority health needs, we can fulfill the promise of digital health. 

In a country where mobile penetration exceeds 80 percent but only a few people have smartphones, such simple solutions can have the greatest impact.

For health practitioners, digital solutions must be perceived as boosting efficiency rather than adding to their heavy workload.

Creating solutions with experienced healthcare professionals in low-resource settings can help ensure solutions are adopted at scale.

For example, the telemedicine network that the Novartis Foundation and its partners rolled out with the Ghana Health Service was a direct response to a need expressed by healthcare practitioners on the ground.

The network connects frontline health workers with a simple phone call to consultation centers in referral hospitals several hours away – where doctors and specialists are available around-the-clock.

From the outset, the project was a response to an expressed need to expand the reach of medical expertise. It was fully operated on the ground by Ghana Health Service staff, which made this model sustainable at scale.

Potential and promise

To realize the full potential of digital health, solutions must be integrated into national health systems. Only then can digital technology accelerate progress toward universal health coverage and address countries’ priority health needs.

Collaboration across the health and ICT sectors, both public and private, is essential. Multidisciplinary partnerships driven by sustained leadership from senior government officials must guide progress, beginning at the planning stage.

Governmental cooperation, dedicated financing for digital health solutions and effective governance mechanisms will also be vital for success.

Digital technologies offer huge opportunities to improve healthcare delivery. If we are to seize them, we must learn from past experience.

By remaining focused on the reality of end users and on priority health needs, rather than being dazzled by the latest technology, we can fulfill the promise of digital health. goldbrown2

This article originally appeared on Project Syndicate and was republished with permission. 

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Ann Aerts is Head of the Novartis Foundation.

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