Sparking a digital revolution against chronic disease

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Last month, the Broadband Commission Working Group on Digital Health released a new report on how digital technologies can address the growing challenge of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and pave the way to universal health care coverage in low- and middle-income countries, write Ann Aerts and Harald Nusser.

Ann Aerts is the head of the Novartis Foundation and Harald Nusser is the head of Novartis Social Business.

The report underscores that efforts to advance economic and educational goals through communications technology can also strengthen other aspects of human well-being. It’s a synergy that countries should work to seize.

Look to India to see the promise in action right now. This year, the country launched the world’s largest government-funded health insurance program, covering nearly 40% of India’s 1.3 billion citizens.

A key objective is to halt the spread of non-infectious diseases like diabetes and cancer while minimizing the risks of catastrophic health expenditures. In a country as populous as India, it’s only possible to achieve universal health coverage by making the most of digital technology: using it as an enabler to link people with providers, continuously educate health workers, and store and analyze individualized data.

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In places where healthcare providers are scarce, digital technologies can ensure something that was once hard to fathom: access to expert care. In Ghana, the Novartis Foundation’s telemedicine model which centralizes expertise in a handful of teleconsultation centres has solved 70% of health issues directly by phone.

This has helped people avoid long and costly journeys to care centres, while also avoiding unnecessary hospital referrals. Based on the model’s success, Ghana health authorities have now expanded their use of telemedicine, improving access to quality health services for more than six million people.

For remote areas, these digital health approaches aren’t only about convenience or seeking marginal improvements in care. They are saving lives.

Crucially, digital tools can also empower long-term investments in health systems.

Health workers in rural areas travel long distances, sometimes on foot, to receive basic training. Many cannot make the trips and forgo essential learning and skill-building. As a solution, we’ve been spearheading the SMS for Life 2.0 program, which uses smartphones and tablets to offer continuing education for such health providers.

Similarly, Last Mile Health has launched an accessible digital education platform for community health workers. Efforts such as these—decentralizing healthcare and empowering local caregivers—are essential steps towards achieving universal health coverage.

Beyond training, digital is also advancing healthcare by improving medical therapies and technologies. Social networking, for example, makes it easier to recruit clinical trial participants.

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AI and predictive analytics accelerate clinical trials, making it possible to analyze and use data to get to results earlier.

Even though many low-income countries lack high-speed internet, most are still gaining improvements in their health systems through digital technology, including better efficiency, accessibility, and cost-effectiveness of care.

Still, as this new Broadband Commission report demonstrates, coverage will be critical for low- and middle-income countries to achieve progress in health systems.

Fortunately, countries are getting better at coordinating various digital health solutions and integrating them into the health system in line with national health priorities.

Where there is visionary leadership and collaboration between health, ICT and other sectors, and sustained political commitment, we see huge improvements in access to prevention and quality care–allowing for the acceleration of the achievement of key Sustainable Development Goals.

In the Philippines, for example, the National eHealth Steering Committee has been leading a digital transformation aimed to achieve a range of measurable outcomes relating to the global goals, including for health and education.

As part of these efforts, Novartis is experimenting with a social business start-up, Allied World Healthcare (AWH), to try to eliminate common access barriers.

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Working with other partners—including Microsoft, PwC, National University of Singapore and Singtel—and using expertise and funding from Novartis, AWH has developed a platform that creates digital patient records using self-reported data.

When an algorithm flags potential health issues in patients’ records, those patients receive referrals to a local healthcare practitioner. Aggregated disease prevalence data is used by local authorities to better understand the community health profile and to design health interventions.

Results from this pilot will support the development of comprehensive solutions to improve access, such as providing patients with health education, medical appointment services, video conference consultation, and new delivery methods for medicines supported by health insurance schemes.

Countries with comprehensive digital health strategies will reap advantages over those that do not take a strategic approach.

They can use digital technology to pay providers for measurable outcomes rather than for tasks completed, make use of real-time data for smarter allocation of resources and policy decisions, and ultimately empower health practitioners to spend more time providing care.

With the rise of digital transformations around the world, countries face an unprecedented opportunity to stem the rising tide of NCDs.

To seize this opportunity requires thoughtful planning and coordination that puts digital technology to work in synergy across multiple sectors simultaneously.

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