TSC Thursdays - Will Digital Health Solutions Improve Access to Healthcare in a Post-COVID Era?
TSC Thursdays is a weekly TSC blog post with top trending news and issues pertaining to UN Sustainable Goals. TSC’s SDG COVID Impact Dashboard applies our proprietary models and methodologies to filter the global chatter through a dynamic issue taxonomy to track and visualize COVID-19's impact across 17 SDGs in real-time. For more insights on global SDG commitment, sentiment and activity explore our SDG COVID Impact Dashboard here: https://sdg-covid.tsc.ai
TSC's SDG COVID Impact Dashboard identified a recurring theme in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal focusing on healthcare and the provision of medical services amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. This week our SDG COVID Impact Dashboard highlights "Access to healthcare” and explores the related and emerging topic of Digital Health.
Creating people-centred healthcare systems
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a strain on healthcare systems around the world. With increasing pressure being placed on finite manpower and resources, digital technologies offer valuable solutions to meet pressing healthcare needs. The World Health Organization (WHO) had in 2019 announced the creation of a new department on digital health that will specifically assess, integrate, regulate and maximize the opportunities of digital technologies and artificial intelligence. In a recently published draft report on their global strategy on digital health, WHO stressed that, to be successful, there is a need for these solutions to be “people-centred, trust-based, evidence-based, effective, efficient, sustainable, inclusive, equitable, and contextualized.” This places the individual, such as patients and frontline healthcare workers, at the centre of digital health through the adoption and use of technologies in scaling up and strengthening health service delivery. In practice, this focuses on issues ranging from workforce assessment, communication technologies and public awareness.
Growing multi-sectoral approaches to digital solutions
While governments are eager to equip their healthcare workers with digital solutions, there may be challenges in deploying coordinated solutions due to the lack of infrastructure in place to support new technologies. These could range from a lack of access to the technologies (such as smartphones), low digital literacy or the lack of a standardized digital solution as healthcare workers use different tools and platforms. In situations where there is no existing standardized infrastructure and a framework to manage and supervise these solutions in place, rapidly deploying digital tools at the onset of a public health crisis like COVID-19 is incredibly challenging.
A multi-sectoral approach is therefore crucial, so that different government, non-government and industry actors can act in concert with one another. According to digital health enablers D-tree International, digital health programs can reach their full potential only if they are “fully integrated within a broader health system,” one in which the government demonstrates strong political commitment to implementing a digital tool; strong capacity-building processes are established; and there is buy-in from all stakeholders who are responsible for making the system work—including frontline health workers, supervisors, district health teams, and national ministries of health. It is imperative to think of digital health as part of a broader, stronger healthcare system - one that requires investment in terms of adequate infrastructure, a favourable policy environment and support from different stakeholders in the community to promote resource mobilization and public education. Having a regulatory environment that encourages the development of digital health solutions will also pave the way for a better understanding of disruptive technologies that involve the use of big data analytics, artificial intelligence, remote monitoring, or similar tools that enable data capture, exchange and storage.
Bridging the global technological divide
A discussion on technology will be remiss if it does not address the existing global technological divide, and digital health is no exception. The growth in digital health solutions only means that billions will be in the reach of, but still disconnected from, online solutions. There remains a persistent gap between regions and demographics that have access to new information and communications technologies, and those that do not. The WHO Digital Health Atlas maps out relevant digital health initiatives all over the world, however, there's no one-stop-shop for statistics on who has access to health-care technologies. A global strategy is needed to complement existing or newly created digital health networks to support countries that need institutional support for its development.
TSC's Atium heatmap with real-time trend and sentiment analysis shows that the issue of “Access to healthcare” receives more negative sentiment in the media across the African region, as compared to other areas around the world. This highlights the divide in capacity and resource building in the region vis-a-vis the rest of the world, the parlous state of which may be exacerbated by the global pandemic.
A July 2020 report published by the World Economic Forum calls for a “great reset” of Africa’s e-health systems by using mobile technology and broadband as building blocks for innovation. Africa’s healthcare system has been underfunded for a long time, with statistics from WHO stating that in the majority of its countries, there is one hospital per 1 million people, one doctor per 10,000, and one hospital bed for 10,000. Digital innovations are key in enabling equitable and quality healthcare services in the post-pandemic era. These can include technologies that allow for home testing, AI-powered call centers or chatbots that enable self-diagnosis, or surveillance tools that support contact tracing efforts. What is required to bridge the technology divide on the African continent is the development of these solutions, coupled with Digital and ICT literacy public campaigns and strong collaboration between public and private players.
TSC’s Atium mapping software allows us to identify key actors in Africa’s current digital health landscape, paired with recent media and machine-generated sentiment analysis on their key findings and initiatives, and understand the interconnected network of these drivers and advocates in the space.
Last five articles in the TSC Thursdays series
Navigate the SDG COVID Impact Dashboard for a snapshot of SDG and thematic insights, or request a demo.