Marco Bego, left, and Dr. Marcio Sawamura at the Hospital das Clinicas of the University of São Paulo in Brazil. Photo by: Getty Images for Novartis

Following the rapid uptake of technology-driven health care solutions amid COVID-19, the Novartis Foundation has launched a learning hub designed to improve population health through health technologies.

The HealthTech Dialogue Hub will host events and showcase lessons learned as well as best practices from the roll out of technology-enabled innovations — such as virtual doctors, e-health trackers, and online prescriptions — and facilitate ongoing dialogue between government leaders, health care workers, and innovators.

HealthTech Dialogue Hub

Visit the HealthTech Dialogue Hub series for more coverage on how to catalyze AI-driven solutions for health and care delivery. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #HealthTech.

“Artificial intelligence and tech solutions are booming. There's just this incredible wealth of examples emerging,” explained Jason Shellaby, director of global health policy at the Novartis Foundation. “Paired with that, there's a growing community of data scientists, entrepreneurs, and health care workers all thinking about how to leverage this and how to improve the health outcomes of populations.”

“We see a great opportunity to publish, collect, and collaborate around these issues and learn how to transition great ideas into impactful solutions,” he added.

Speaking to Devex, Shellaby explained the role AI-based solutions and other novel technologies can play in improving health outcomes and the lessons the Novartis Foundation has already learned.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How can AI and technology improve health outcomes in LMICs?

We're working with local authorities and partners to help them think about how they can reengineer their health systems from being reactive to proactive, predictive, and preventative. It's an exciting space and we’re witnessing how AI can help better predict disease outbreaks, improve early detection, and improve clinical decision-making.

One example is the AI nucleus in São Paulo, Brazil. We've worked with local authorities in the University Hospital of São Paulo to develop a platform that analyzes lung images to help diagnose COVID-19 and predict who may be most at risk of complications. This helps prioritize treatment, so it's quite an exciting platform that we're going to see grow and hopefully adapt to other diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases.

Another example is an AI screening solution for leprosy. We've seen a dramatic decrease in new leprosy cases, but they remain stubbornly high. This solution — that's being developed with Microsoft and our partner in Brazil, the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation — pools images and data from patients. It then trains an algorithm that can identify through data and photos of leprosy-like lesions whether a person needs further checks for leprosy or another dermatological disease. Given that leprosy can be hard to trace in remote outposts, and due to its nature of mimicking other diseases, you can imagine the potential this solution can have in the hands of community health workers, and even for self-screening by a patient.

Lucy Setian, associate director of healthtech innovation, explains how the HealthTech Dialogue Hub will help improve population health. Via YouTube.

What is needed to catalyze such technology-enabled innovation?

One thing that I'm excited about is the enabling environment right now. COVID-19 is giving us permission to be bold in terms of adopting innovations in health care systems around the world. Telemedicine was in the background for so long and whether because of entrenched interests or regulatory barriers it never really took off. And then, within the space of a year, 10 years’ worth of innovation took place.

I don't think we're going back, but the challenge countries are facing is how do you make the most of these solutions and make sure they're scalable and sustainable?

With the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, we've worked with policymakers on how to think about national digital strategies, governance models, and how digital health can improve the management of noncommunicable diseases. In September 2020, we launched a report on AI in health that conducts a landscape analysis of all the different use cases that currently exist to improve health and care systems in low-income settings. We've also created an actionable framework that we hope governments can leverage to see what key pillars they must build to make the most of solutions like this … The report made it clear for us that AI is not just hype.

We've also been working with health authorities in Senegal and in Brazil to think about solutions for better early diagnosis of patients with cardiovascular disease. With our local partners, we developed an app that allows health care workers and patients to identify their cardiovascular risk and better understand what kind of lifestyle modification they may need to make. The introduction of automated screenings for cardiovascular risk can help ensure at-risk patients are closely monitored to help reduce heart attacks and strokes.

What learnings and best practices has the Novartis Foundation incorporated through previous work that could increase the level of digitalization for health system strengthening?

You have to work with governments to understand where they're at. One core element is having a national digital strategy in place — that's a key enabler in understanding the different sectors and stakeholders that need to be involved to reach scale. It’s also important to have a good data strategy to have clarity on how data is stored, how accessible it is, its interoperability, and data privacy.

Another element is early detection and population health strategies. In the field of cardiovascular health, there are new technologies that allow people to screen themselves through an iPhone. People can measure their blood pressure and if you can put that in the patient's hand [and] make it easy for them to seek care, that's going to have a large impact.

We sometimes get bogged down in the [details] of improving the quality of care, but I think a big piece — as well as making sure we're fully aware of the population at risk and how to find them — is giving them a way of knowing their conditions as early as possible.

How has COVID-19 changed the health technology landscape in LMICs?

As the world has stood still, the digital world has blossomed. With that, there's also been a change among patients. Suddenly, expectations have changed in terms of what kind of health care service delivery can exist. That's where virtual consultations come in.

There are some ambitious national plans that we're seeing in various LMICs. Take Vietnam's most recent national digital health strategy for example. They are going full force with digital transformation, with several priority streams of work — such as digitizing patient records and making sure there are telemedicine units in all health care facilities.

On the flip side, though, there's this reality that only about 50% of the world has access to broadband. How do we make sure the [unconnected] can access these new innovations? There's a challenge there of bigger systemic infrastructure that needs to be addressed.

It might sound contradictory, but I think you still can introduce health care tech solutions in countries that don't have the perfect architecture in place. Telehealth or early diagnostic solutions, for example, has shown that models can be integrated to improve interactions between health care providers and different tiers of the health care system, as well as providing an easy way for patients to get direct care. Over the long term, it's important that these solutions are fully embedded within the regular workflows of the health care system.

Why do you think such a hub to house learnings around AI and technology is needed now?

With all this excitement taking place and all these different solutions, we know the need for this platform is there. There's this community that wants to engage, to share ideas, and exchange on the challenges they face with their work.

This is not just a one-time event. We want to foster a place for learning and an ongoing series of exchange that we can build upon. We hope to grow this community and encourage potential partners to share how they could contribute in terms of content, events, or in sharing new tech innovations that can help improve health outcomes and reimagine health and care systems.

Visit the HealthTech Dialogue Hub series for more coverage on how to catalyze AI-driven solutions for health and care delivery. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #HealthTech.

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