Dig­i­tal health­care chal­lenge

African Independent - - OUTLOOK - NIALL DUNNE

TECH­NOL­OGY is trans­form­ing global health­care for health­care work­ers and pa­tients across the world.

We only have to look at how the digi­ti­sa­tion of pa­tient records has sim­pli­fied life for clin­i­cians, mak­ing it eas­ier to record re­al­time pa­tient data, look for per­sonal health trends and pat­terns and study pa­tient his­tory.

This has paved the way for doc­tors, nurses and other health­care pro­fes­sion­als to pro­vide faster and more ac­cu­rate di­ag­noses – and ul­ti­mately spend more faceto-face time with pa­tients.

For pa­tients, tech­nol­ogy brings greater op­por­tu­ni­ties to man­age their health on their own terms, from smart­phone apps that send med­i­ca­tion re­minders to wear­ables that can help mon­i­tor and pre­vent health is­sues be­fore they be­come life-threat­en­ing.

In the de­vel­oped world, th­ese dig­i­tal ser­vices and in­no­va­tive apps are be­com­ing com­mon­place. Some 75% of all pa­tients in the UK, Ger­many and Sin­ga­pore ex­pect to use dig­i­tal ser­vices in the fu­ture, ac­cord­ing to a McKin­sey sur­vey. Pa­tients over the age of 50 want th­ese as much as their younger coun­ter­parts.

Across large parts of Africa, Cen­tral America and Asia, in­ter­net ac­cess is out of reach for many peo­ple – a lack of in­fra­struc­ture and low aware­ness are ma­jor causes. Some 4.3 bil­lion peo­ple are off­line and 550 mil­lion of th­ese live in just five coun­tries: Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nige­ria, Pak­istan and Tan­za­nia.

This means that the ICT in­fra­struc­ture and e-health so­lu­tions taken for granted in de­vel­oped coun­tries are of­ten miss­ing in de­vel­op­ing na­tions, where vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties and the most dis­ad­van­taged fam­i­lies suf­fer the most.

This is a chal­lenge that must be ad­dressed if we are to give everyone across the world the op­por­tu­nity to ben­e­fit from in­vest­ments in dig­i­tal health­care.

Reach­ing the most dis­ad­van­taged and truly trans­form­ing their cir­cum­stances re­quires a sig­nif­i­cant shift in mind­set. It is not some­thing that can be done in iso­la­tion by one com­pany or body; rather, it re­quires an in­no­va­tive col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween mul­ti­ple stake­hold­ers all com­ing to­gether to solve the prob­lem and pro­vide vi­tal parts of the so­lu­tion.

This mind­set change is one as­pect of an over­ar­ch­ing con­cept known as “fur­thest first”. Put sim­ply, this means that by reach­ing and solv­ing the chal­lenges of those in most need of help, you learn more. All of th­ese learn­ings can then be ap­plied to reach­ing the rest of the pop­u­la­tion with im­proved ve­loc­ity and scale.

This ap­proach is al­ready in place, and it’s work­ing. A col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween BT, NGO SOS Chil­dren’s Vil­lages, lo­cal gov­ern­ment, in­vestors and health­care ex­perts, for ex­am­ple, brings satel­lite ser­vices to re­mote vil­lages in 13 African coun­tries, en­abling dig­i­tal e-health ser­vices so that they can ben­e­fit from bet­ter health­care de­liv­ery.

The low­est lev­els of in­ter­net ac­cess are mostly found in subSa­ha­ran Africa, ac­cord­ing to the UN, with in­ter­net avail­able to less than 2% of the pop­u­la­tion in Guinea, So­ma­lia, Bu­rundi and Eritrea. Ac­cess to the in­ter­net has al­lowed SOS med­i­cal cen­tres to sim­plify and stream­line clin­i­cal pro­cesses, from com­put­erised in­voic­ing and elec­tronic pre­scrip­tions to im­proved phar­macy stock con­trol.

What does this mean for health out­comes?

With bet­ter pa­tient records, dig­i­tal so­lu­tions and em­pow­er­ing pa­tients to take health­care so­lu­tions into their own hands comes the abil­ity to take a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to tack­ling in­fec­tious and other life-threat­en­ing diseases in vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties. For ex­am­ple, more than 50% of pa­tients at SOS’s Kenyan clinic are on some form of Aids med­i­ca­tion. Re­mind­ing them to col­lect re­peat pre­scrip­tions had pre­vi­ously been a chal­lenge but the new digi­tised sys­tem en­ables doc­tors and phar­ma­cists to re­mind pa­tients when their med­i­ca­tion has run out.

It also al­lows med­i­cal cen­tres to bet­ter man­age their stock and re­duce faults in the lab, as test re­sults are loaded on to the com­puter rather than trans­ported on slips of pa­per.

A mod­ernised health­care sys­tem en­cour­ages closer and bet­ter work­ing re­la­tion­ships be­tween NGOs, health­care providers and ex­perts, and pa­tients, through which best prac­tice and health in­for­ma­tion can be shared fur­ther, faster.

This is just one ex­am­ple of how ICT can im­prove the lives of peo­ple across the world – but it is one of many. The chal­lenge is still com­plex and large in scale, but we must as­pire to give ev­ery per­son across the world ac­cess to dig­i­tal health­care so­lu­tions.

To do so, we need to change our at­ti­tude, work­ing in in­no­va­tive coali­tion with mul­ti­ple stake­hold­ers to find an­swers to global health­care chal­lenges and ul­ti­mately us­ing our ex­pe­ri­ences to trans­form e-health for all.

This ar­ti­cle is part of the Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Im­pact Sum­mit

Niall Dunne is chief sus­tain­abil­ity of­fi­cer, BT Group Plc

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