Health and Healthcare

Furthest first. How healthcare is changing in the digital age

Digital tools give patients greater opportunity to manage their own health Image: REUTERS/Noor Khamis

Niall Dunne
Chief Executive Officer, polymateria
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Health and Healthcare

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

Technology is transforming global healthcare for both healthcare workers and patients across the world.

We only have to look at how the digitization of patient records has simplified life for clinicians, making it easier than ever before to record real-time patient data, look for personal health trends and patterns, and study patient history. This has paved the way for doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to provide faster and more accurate diagnoses – and ultimately spend more face-to-face time with patients.

For patients, technology brings greater opportunities to manage their health on their own terms, from smartphone apps that send medication reminders to wearables that can help monitor and prevent health issues before they become life threatening.

In the developed world, these digital services and innovative apps are becoming commonplace. Some 75% of all patients in the UK, Germany and Singapore expect to use digital services in the future, according to a McKinsey survey on digital patient health. Patients over the age of 50 want these as much as their younger counterparts.

Across large parts of Africa, Central America and Asia, internet access is out of reach for many people – a lack of infrastructure and low awareness are major causes. Some 4.3 billion people are offline and 550 million of these live in just five countries: Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Tanzania. This means that the ICT infrastructure and eHealth solutions taken for granted in developed countries are often missing in developing nations, where vulnerable communities and the most disadvantaged families suffer the most.

This is a challenge that must be addressed if we are to give everyone across the world the opportunity to benefit from investments in digital healthcare.

Reaching the most disadvantaged and truly transforming their circumstances requires a significant shift in mindset. It is not something that can be done in isolation by one company or body, rather it requires an innovative collaboration between multiple stakeholders, all coming together to solve the problem and provide vital parts of the solution.

This mindset change is one aspect of an overarching concept known as “furthest first”. Put simply, this means that by reaching and solving the challenges of those in most need of help, you learn more. All of these learnings can then be applied to reaching the rest of the population with improved velocity and scale.

This approach is already in place and it’s working. A collaboration between BT, NGO SOS Children’s Villages, local government, investors and healthcare experts, for example, brings satellite services to remote villages in 13 African countries, enabling digital eHealth services in these areas so that they can benefit from better healthcare delivery.

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The lowest levels of internet access are mostly found in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the UN, with internet available to less than 2% of the population in Guinea, Somalia, Burundi and Eritrea. Access to the internet has allowed SOS medical centres to simplify and streamline clinical processes, from computerized invoicing and electronic prescriptions to improved pharmacy stock control.

What does this mean for health outcomes?

With better patient records, digital solutions and empowering patients to take healthcare solutions into their own hands, comes the ability to take a different approach to tackling infectious and other life threatening diseases in vulnerable communities. For example, more than 50% of patients at SOS’s Kenyan clinic are on some form of AIDS medication. Reminding them to collect repeat prescriptions had previously been a challenge but the new digitized system enables doctors and pharmacists to remind patients when their medication has run out. It also allows medical centres to better manage their stock and reduce faults in the lab, as test results are loaded onto the computer rather than transported on slips of paper.

A modernized healthcare system encourages closer and better working relationships between NGOs, healthcare providers and experts, and patients, through which best practice and health information can be shared further, faster.

This is just one example of how ICT can improve the lives of people across the world – but it is one of many. The challenge is still complex and large in scale, but we must aspire to give every person across the world access to digital healthcare solutions. To do so, we need to change our attitude, working in innovative coalition with multiple stakeholders to find answers to global healthcare challenges and ultimately using our experiences to transform eHealth for all.

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