Fourth Industrial Revolution

What can technology do for global health?

A seven-year-old ethnic Tibetan girl diagnosed with congenital heart disease plays with a mobile phone as she lies on bed before having her surgery at a hospital in Hefei, capital of eastern China's Anhui province, December 22, 2012.

"We must find ways that technology can provide vastly lower-cost solutions to vastly more people." Image: REUTERS/Stringer

Jonathan Jackson
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Dimagi
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Future of Global Health and Healthcare

This year, the focus of the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos was on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and how the technology revolution is changing all aspects of our world. The effects are particularly profound in the healthcare field.

I had the opportunity to discuss these changes in a session titled “Rebooting Healthcare” with Seth F. Berkley, chief executive officer of GAVI Alliance, Jonathan Adiri, founder and chief executive officer of, and Elizabeth O’Day, founder and chief executive officer of Olaris Therapeutics.

During this session, we discussed how the latest innovations are transforming healthcare. Mr. Adiri shared how is using mobile phones as medical imaging devices. Ms. O’Day discussed how Olaris Therapeutics is developing precision medicines for diseases to offer new treatment options or better tailor existing treatments.

These individuals and organizations are helping to improve access to healthcare around the world and are achieving remarkable results. Their contributions come at a critical moment for global health. In Africa, the average spending on healthcare across all 54-member countries comes down to about $200 per person per year. By comparison, according to 2013 data from the World Health Organization, the United States spends roughly $9,000 per person per year. This difference of a factor of 45 in spending means that for a vast portion of the world’s population, we need to rethink our approach to healthcare.

Map: Health expenditure per capita, from the World Bank

Many advanced technologies are too expensive and thus will have little effect on alleviating the health crisis for billions around the world for whom advanced high-tech healthcare is simply out of reach. If we accept that this divide cannot be bridged with advanced technology designed for a $9,000-a-year healthcare consumer, then we must find ways that technology can provide vastly lower-cost solutions to vastly more people.

One such solution is to use technology to shift our focus from healthcare to health promotion. We need to not only focus on precision healthcare, but also precision health. We need to develop inexpensive solutions that can automate health services and help foster ecosystems where communities can create their own health services.

We saw the power of this approach during the Ebola epidemic. Rather than an expensive blockbuster drug or vaccine, rapid community mobilization facilitated by technology quelled the outbreak. This isn’t to say we don’t need blockbuster drugs and vaccines: Merck and GAVI just announced a partnership to bring an Ebola Vaccine to market.

However, inexpensive technology such as simple mobile applications helped to eradicate the disease by providing communities with information on preventative measures, including safe burials and how to conduct contact tracing. We must look for opportunities to replicate this success, leveraging low-cost technology to ensure these communities continue to have access to preventative health information that allows them to take charge and keep their communities safe.

In addition to yielding better health outcomes, this shift from high-cost treatments to relatively low-cost health promotion has serious macro and micro-economic implications. At a macro level, malaria has been estimated to cost Africa more than $12 billion every year in lost GDP, that’s 1% of GDP, even though it could be controlled for a fraction of that sum. At an individual level, Health Poverty Action has estimated that the cost of treating a child with malaria is the equivalent of half a month’s average salary in Sierra Leone. Technology can help alleviate these costs by improving access to low-cost preventative treatments such as bed nets.

While it was inspiring to learn about the innovative precision technology in development in Davos, I came away more convinced than ever that we need to also focus innovation on the billions that these technologies do not reach and will not reach by market forces alone. We must invest in solutions that facilitate low-cost preventative healthcare measures that empower communities and allow them to take control of their health outcomes.

Fortunately, this is rapidly becoming a focus in expensive markets as well. According to a report by the World Economic Forum and Bain, non-communicable diseases between now and 2030 are expected to cost 5 times the amount of money that was lost during the 2008 financial crisis. If we can collectively find ways to shift the market and ecosystem to focus on health, not just healthcare, we can harness a creativity and innovation engine that knows no bounds, and reach every person.

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