Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Digital tools building the future of global health?

Digital tools building the future of global health?


In December, Marta our Senior Partnerships Manager, travelled to Maryland to attend the third annual Global Digital Health Forum, a platform focusing on digital and connected health in low and middle income countries, sharing lessons on what works and what doesn’t in technology for development. Here follows an account of her time there.


The potential of digital tools are proving not only crucial to the provision of health services but also to the wider health system, allowing strong systems to be built before crisis occurs. Digital data, for example, helped bring an end to Ebola in West Africa. The global usage of digital tools has also led to a surge in popularity for supporting the growth of digital health globally, it has become trendy. It is coming to be seen as a key part of a complete health package, which needs to be fully integrated into the health system, with countries such as Tanzania and Nigeria having developed national health data strategies.

Over 400 people beat the cold, in Maryland, to attend the third annual Global Digital Health Forum, a platform focusing on digital and connected health in LMICs, sharing lessons on what works and what doesn’t in technology for development. Over two days in December, it seemed that everyone that mattered in the global digital health field, including newcomers such as myself, came together to discuss the future of digital health. A number of shiny, new solutions to global health challenges were shared. From Facebook to Google new innovations such as the use of drones and balloons to bring Wi-Fi to those in remote and rural areas were debated, while others spoke of using apps to ensure healthier babies and mothers. Most discussions, however, revolved around sustainability and collaboration. How can one ensure that technology solutions live beyond the funding period? Digital tools are after all useless if citizens themselves do not use them.

Most of the tools developed for gathering data are, however, disease specific. The donor community are partly to blame for this as most funding mechanisms tend to favour linear health responses.  Partnerships between government, private and civil society actors offer a solution to health information challenges. Yet, collaboration may suffer in the current country-focused political environment. In these times, it is important to remember the nine principles for digital development, which were written by and for international development donors and their implementing partners. These principles emphasise the importance of human-centred design, context-specific solutions, re-use and improve existing technology and tools and being inclusive and collaborative. If we can get these principles right, we’ve come a long way in ensuring sustainable health information systems and better health responses as a result in the future.

With so many new digital avenues and innovations forming in the global health arena, there is certainly much to think over. For THET, we must now ask how we can use this technology to complement our partnership work and apply digital solutions to the strengthening of global health systems.

Marta Roxberg
Senior Partnerships Manager
THET