The urgent need to strengthen health systems has been thrown into stark relief by the onset of COVID-19 — with health actors and governments all over the world scrambling to put the structures in place to deal with the crisis.
Though the situation has exposed multiple weaknesses in health care and it's often fragmentary nature, it has also sharpened the focus on the need to put in place effective and long-lasting digital technologies that can strengthen health systems so that they are more responsive to people’s health needs and better prepared for future crises.
On Sept. 23, Devex, Transform Health, and the Digital Connected Care Coalition co-hosted an online event in which key experts and practitioners discussed how to overcome health challenges using data and digital technology in light of the COVID-19 crisis.
Call to Action
DCCC and Transform Health are part of a growing ecosystem of organizations and initiatives calling for greater support for the digital transformation of health systems in low- and middle-income countries to ensure that we reach our 2030 commitment of UHC for all.
Collectively, Transform Health and DCCC call for:
Greater political commitment from governments in LMICs to fund and support inclusively developed national strategies for the equitable digital transformation of their health systems to accelerate UHC.
Greater commitment from national authorities to work multisectorally by strengthening public-private-partnerships, and to include civil society and representatives from marginalized and traditionally excluded communities in the design, implementation, and governance of digital transformation processes.
Increased donor funding to support LMIC governments to develop and implement innovative digital tools and data-driven decision making for overall health system strengthening.
The consolidation and effective coordination of the multiple donor financing streams and mechanisms using technology to build transparency; increasing efficiency and reducing costs for all, in particular patients and healthcare providers, in low-income countries.
Greater support for national and local governments to develop and implement policies, regulations, and health strategies to integrate digital technologies and accelerate
the digital transformation of the system, which can further facilitate the expansion of digitally-enabled primary health care coverage to achieve UHC.
Different stakeholders, such as private companies and NGOs, team up and develop ecosystem partnerships.
Dr. Naveen Rao, senior vice president for health at The Rockefeller Foundation, said that although the global community is suffering as a result of the pandemic, the current context presents us all with an opportunity to reflect on how data and technology can help set the long-term future for public health.
“It is showing us opportunities of how we can build back better, build back stronger, and make sure that the inequities that this pandemic has exposed … are something we take into consideration as we go forward,” Rao said. But that will also require overcoming the significant barrier in communication between the government, public, and private sectors, he added.
Dr. Sabin Nsanzimana, director-general of Rwanda Biomedical Centre, highlighted the role of digital technology in protecting frontline staff during times of crisis while allowing them to continue to provide patient care. He pointed to the robots brought in to help Rwanda’s fight against COVID-19, reducing doctors’ contact time with patients by being programmed to perform tasks including temperature screening and keeping medical records. Drones have also been used to transport medical samples and supplies, and to deliver educational messages by air.
Meanwhile, Kalavathi GV, chief technical officer of Philips in India and head of Philips Innovation Campus in Bengaluru, India, said the private sector has an important role to play in funding for health, enabling innovative methods such as services and applications to be scaled up, and putting in place the required infrastructure including connectivity and expanding digital capabilities of health workers.
However, Dr. Anurag Agrawal, co-chair of the Joint Commission on Governing Health Futures 2030 and director of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in India, cautioned about the dangers posed by the rapid roll out of new technology during periods of crisis.
He pointed to the political pressure by governments and health sectors to roll out new technologies without due consideration of the system in which these are being deployed, or the health workers or beneficiaries that will be using them. He cautioned against a tendency to reach for digital technology solutions as a fix-all, saying that some initiatives may actually cause more damage in being released at the wrong time, in the wrong manner, or in the wrong context.
This crisis has raised multiple questions, Agrawal said, such as: “Will the application of technologies actually increase inequity, or provide solutions? And who will determine it? Will it be bureaucrats? Will it be technocrats? Shall we trust industry with it?”
Rao highlighted privacy issues in relation to data, but highlighted ways individual data can be anonymized to get valuable insights into population health without jeopardizing individual privacy. “Other industries such as banking are doing it, and we need to learn from them,” Rao said. “Unless we get the data, we’re going to be flying blind.”
Delegates also discussed the need to ensure interoperability between different technological initiatives, and the need for effective national coordination between actors so that projects can be scaled and be made more sustainable in the long term, avoiding the “pilotitis” where multiple projects don’t get beyond the pilot phase.
During the subsequent fireside chat accompanying the event, panelists from DCCC and Transform Health, emphasized the need for a coordinated and collaborative approach for all stakeholders to ensure health for all in the digital age. Participants highlighted the need for a collaborative approach that engages individuals and communities traditionally excluded from decision-making on health related matters that impacts their lives.
Creating better collaboration between networks really helps everyone come together and address challenges, said Dykki Settle, co-chair at Transform Health and chief digital officer and director of the Center of Digital and Data Excellence at PATH.
Danielle Mullings, the Caribbean and Americas representative on the Young Experts: Tech 4 Health youth council, said it is essential to include youths in health projects from the get-go rather than consulting them retrospectively.
“We have to stop treating young people as if they’re only the future, because young people are the here and the now,” she said. “It’s not just about putting a young person at the table … young persons have to be systematically included in the design process.”
Nicole Spieker, quality director and director for East Africa at the PharmAccess Foundation, who represented the Digital Connected Care Coalition at the event, said health coalitions can help create the environments that give rise to digital services tailor-made for the realities on the ground — with COVID highlighting that one-size-fits-all solutions are not the way to go.
“Let’s create enabling environments that are home-grown, built with youth and the cultural diversity that this planet has to offer in the background, and help governments with this enabling environment,’ she said.
To learn more, watch the event above and join the conversation online using the hashtags #UNGA75 and you can also help DCCC and Transform Health improve on future online events by filling out this survey.