Digital health tech is key to achieving health SDGs - Hindustan Times
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Digital health tech is key to achieving health SDGs

Mar 24, 2023 07:27 PM IST

The time to act is now. It is in our collective interest that digital health technologies are targeted to those countries and populations that are furthest behind.

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed our worldview on health care. While it has forced cooperation, it has also exposed the systemic gaps in health governance. Our progress in achieving the health-related Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDGs), especially the aspiration of universal health coverage (UHC),s was derailed by the pandemic. Safe and secure digital technologies can transform the health sector and help us reach these goals. For example, tele-medicine, tele-radiology and tele-dispensing can provide specialised health services in remote areas; and digital technologies have the means to collect, analyse and disseminate data, so changes in population health can be identified; safe and secure digital health records empower citizens to access health services and enable consent-based access to patient’s history to health care providers for quality personalised care.

The CoWIN platform enabled and smoothened the humongous task of vaccinating over one billion people against Covid-19. (Reuters) PREMIUM
The CoWIN platform enabled and smoothened the humongous task of vaccinating over one billion people against Covid-19. (Reuters)

Digital health can accelerate the transition from curative services to a primary health care-centric ecosystem, which focuses on preventive and promotive care. It also has the potential to produce cost-effective methods for disease surveillance and programme management, while leveraging emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, augmented reality, the Internet of Things, big data and biotech.

Most of all, digital technologies give us the hope of leapfrogging towards UHC and other health-related SDGs.

The World Health Organization (WHO) South-East Asia Region has witnessed an increase in the service coverage index — from 47 in 2010 to 61 in 2019 — but the pace is inadequate to achieve the minimum essential service coverage index of 80 by 2030. Further, while there has been a reduction in impoverishment on account of out-of-pocket spending on health from 12.4% in 2015 to about 6% in 2017, catastrophic health spending has remained at the same level or increased in a majority of countries.

Poor health infrastructure, shortage of qualified human resources, lack of access, availability and affordability of health services, and a host of issues relating to health administration and governance continue to challenge progress towards UHC and SDGs.

The use of digital technology is one quick way to address these challenges. In India, for example, the Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission created over 350 million digital health identification. The CoWIN platform enabled and smoothened the humongous task of vaccinating over one billion people against Covid-19. India’s national telemedicine platform, eSanjeevani, provided teleconsultation services to more than 100 million beneficiaries.

The quality and pace of adoption of digital health can be greatly enhanced by the concept of Digital Public Goods (DPGs), which are open-source software, data, AI models and content that adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices. DPGs could include platforms, devices and applications designed to transform areas such as telemedicine, immunisation, mother and child health, non-communicable diseases, information, education and communication and digital health literacy. Governments can formulate policies and frameworks for incentivising the development of DPGs in the rest of the ecosystem by the private sector.

The time to act is now. It is in our collective interest that digital health technologies are targeted to those countries and populations that are furthest behind.

Poonam Khetrapal Singh is regional director, WHO Southeast Asia

The views expressed are personal

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