As the global health community works toward a rapid, sustainable, and equitable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, technology is playing a greater role than ever before. From telehealth to data-driven performance management, digital technologies are transforming the way partners as diverse as NGOs, pharmaceutical companies, and community health care workers collaborate to deliver care where it is needed most.
This message was underscored at the third edition of the Devex signature event Prescription for Progress — held fully virtual for the first time — during which experts convened to share their experiences and insights from what has proven to be a year of unprecedented challenge, but also of innovation and opportunities.
Here are four key takeaways from the day’s conversations.
1. Ensure equal access to care
The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated deep inequities in global health, with low- and middle-income countries and underserved communities disproportionately affected. Responses proposed by speakers included a reorientation of development funding to reach those most in need, the creation of a pandemic procurement fund to ensure lower-income countries receive the supplies they need in the event of future pandemics and, more immediately, the equitable distribution of vaccines.
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The importance of guaranteeing universal health coverage and national health insurance schemes was also raised, along with the need for ensuring that those living with HIV or noncommunicable diseases are not left behind as resources are diverted away from basic health services toward the pandemic response.
“COVID-19 has really been a case study in how important it is to address the double burden of chronic disease and infectious disease alongside each other,” said Anne Stake, head of strategy, innovation and technology at Medtronic LABS, which has partnered with Kenya’s Ministry of Health to extend screening and care for diabetes and hypertension using digital tech.
Achieving equity of care requires equal access to technology, several speakers agreed, with Ann Aerts, head of the Novartis Foundation, citing the numerous applications for artificial intelligence in health care that could benefit those in low-income countries. Those “with less resources have the most to gain from AI, but also the most to lose if they lag behind,” she said.
2. Build trust
Building trust — not only among the communities that health care workers serve but between the partners that provide it — is crucial, various speakers agreed.
The importance of trust has been underscored as governments work to roll out vaccine programs, with Peter Piot and Heidi Larson of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine arguing that community-level engagement is key to improving acceptance.
Engaging through social media and other technologies to provide communities with valuable information — while also countering the spread of misinformation — is also vital for combating vaccine hesitancy, said Abou Kampo, director of health at UNICEF.
Community health workers have an important role to play here, with Darren Back, executive director of the Pfizer Foundation, recalling a visit to Uganda during which he witnessed the immense trust communities had in CHW expertise. “Technologies are only as strong as the foundation of trust they rest on,” he noted.
Building trust between partners — and especially across the public and private sector divide — is also essential, and intermediaries can play a valuable role here as “honest brokers,” argued Inder Singh, CEO at Kinsa.
3. Boost health system preparedness
COVID-19 has provided a “wake-up call” that health systems in both high- and low-income countries are insufficiently prepared to respond to the pandemic itself or other health burdens, noted the Novartis Foundation’s Aerts. Health systems must be transformed from being “reactive health systems” that wait for people to get sick before they respond, to being “proactive, predictive and eventually even preventative,” she said.
One of several announcements at Prescriptions for Progress included the launch of a new partnership between GSK and Amref Health Africa that will focus on equipping health care workers in Ethiopia and Kenya with training and tech tools to recognize and catch the signs and symptoms of malaria and tuberculosis more quickly.
Delegates were also introduced to several early warning systems, ranging from Kinsa’s smart thermometers to the PREDICT system and the Global Virome Project, which focuses on discovering zoonotic viral threats before they even reach humans. As Hala Audi, CEO of the Trinity Challenge, noted, in both individual diseases and pandemics, “it is simply cheaper and easier to act early.”
In a year during which multiple COVID-19 vaccines have been developed and approved at speed, speakers including Rajesh Gupta, head of Vir Biotechnology’s global health portfolio, flagged the importance of working on multiple innovations rather than waiting for the ideal technology to evolve. This view was echoed by Shivon Byamukama, managing director of Babyl Rwanda, who recalled that Rwanda’s regulatory environment was not quite ready for Babyl when it launched in 2016. However, “you don’t have to wait for perfect to get started.”
4. Forge new partnerships
Preparedness also extends to partnerships, with Vir Biotechnology’s Gupta also recommending they are in place well before any crisis so that innovations can be rolled out swiftly in resource-limited settings.
Many speakers expressed similar sentiments, and the value of partnerships — whether public-private, international, or grassroots — was a constant theme. Eric Goosby, a member of the Biden COVID-19 advisory board, called for more regional and multilateral collaboration, with political bodies such as the G-7 and G-20 playing a critical role.
At the other end of the scale, Kennedy Mubaiwa, CEO of the Higherlife Foundation in Zimbabwe, stressed that organizations must partner closely with any community they support.
GSK’s Williams called on delegates to build on the “nonobvious” partnerships triggered by COVID-19 while the Pfizer Foundation’s Back spoke of the need for partners to work together in “nontraditional ways” and with a broader range of actors. Pfizer has, for example, recently joined the Bay Area Global Health Alliance in San Francisco, he noted.
Read more takeaways from Prescription for Progress 2021
Where Silicon Valley meets global development on health and innovation. Read the insights and updates to come out of the third edition of our Prescription for Progress event.
COVID-19 has galvanized the creation of new and unexpected partnerships, agreed Harmony Garges at ViiV, itself a joint venture with GSK dedicated to tackling HIV. “One company, one organization cannot do this alone,” she said.
In the spirit of partnership, Novartis Foundation also announced the launch of its HealthTech Dialogue Hub, in collaboration with Devex. The hub will act as a virtual community, enabling health care innovators, policymakers, funders, and researchers to develop joint solutions to shared problems.
The HealthTech Dialog Hub is a learning hub designed to improve population health through health technologies. It will showcase lessons learned around technology-enabled initiatives and tools, such as e-health trackers or virtual doctors while facilitating dialog between health care workers, policymakers, and innovators.