Health and Healthcare

Data could fix our COVID-stricken health systems, but it must be done right

If implemented right, data could has the chance to be panacea for the ailments facing our health systems globally — but if done wrong, it will entrench inequities and make the world less fair.

If implemented right, data could has the chance to be panacea for the ailments facing our health systems globally — but if done wrong, it will entrench inequities and make the world less fair. Image: REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski/File Photo

Rifat Atun
Professor of Global Health Systems and Global Board Member, Harvard University and Movement Health 2030
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Health systems worldwide are in crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed their capacity and resilience to the limit.

As we look toward the year 2030, it becomes clear that the recovery from the seismic shock of COVID-19 is being blunted by widening inequalities common to health systems everywhere.

Health systems at risk, now and in the future

Significant issues remain that we are still not prepared for. One is the huge challenges of tackling non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cancer, diabetes and obesity. Combined, they kill 41 million people each year — 71% of all deaths worldwide — with three-quarters of these deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries. Caring for ageing populations is another challenge. Worldwide, by 2030, people aged over 60 are projected to grow from 901 million to 1.4 billion, further exacerbating health challenges such as NCDs.

The crisis faced by health systems is a societal challenge on par with climate change. We are fast approaching a tipping point, after which it will become exponentially more difficult to make improvements. If health systems cannot meet rising demand in the coming years, it will not only be the health of nations that suffers, but also economic prosperity and livelihoods.

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Socio-economically deprived and excluded population groups — ethnic minorities, women, the elderly and those with low-income — are more affected by health system failings and suffer from a lack of access to timely diagnosis, treatment and care. This is true in all countries. Research shows, for example, that infant mortality rates (IMR) among some Indigenous communities in Canada are three to seven times higher than the national average. And while the average life expectancy in Europe is around 80 years, in Africa it is just 63. Research shows that poor health reduces global GDP by 15% each year.

Health systems worldwide share very similar challenges, particularly from rising levels of NCDs and unequal access to effective diagnosis and care. From high-income countries, such as England, to low-income countries, such as Ethiopia, access to essential diagnostics, treatments, medicines and surgery is declining rapidly — a result of COVID-19. Our health systems are not equipped to respond to these challenges, or to tackle the inequities in access to effective care that continue to plague far too many. There is still have time, however. We must urgently invest in health systems if we are to realize the health, economic and societal benefits for those who need it most. We must do this before it is too late.

Leveraging data to fix our health systems

Capitalizing on data and digital solutions will create more equitable and sustainable high-value health systems.

Data capture, analysis and interoperability offer new frontiers when it comes to improving patient care and population health. Ultimately, it is the better use of data that will unlock solutions to the deepest healthcare disparities. But data alone is not a silver bullet. Not everyone has an equal understanding of how to use data and digital technologies.

Embedding cutting-edge technology within health systems can also entrench existing inequalities if not done appropriately. To ensure data is used in safe, ethical and equitable ways, practitioners must account for the following:

1) Adopt and scale up radical new technologies that help us to understand masses of data — and put these insights to use to improve healthcare for all.

From wearable technology and 3-D printing to telehealth, digital health technology innovations have the capacity to impact lives in a more holistic way than traditional healthcare is able to.

2) Implement data regulation and standards that improve data interoperability within health systems and stimulate innovation.

It is only through common, cross-border standards that we can provide a framework through which data can be used across the healthcare ecosystem in safe, ethical ways. The recent European Health Data Space (EHDS) is a good example of such a framework.

3) Empower people to control their own data and prioritize trusted patient communication.

People will only be happy to share their data if they trust that it will be used to improve their lives — rather than producing profit for someone else.

4) Run programmes to address digital and health literacy and access to digital health technologies.

Often, vulnerable groups in society lack health and digital literacy. Access to digital technologies is also limited in many places. Focusing on improving digital and health literacy and access is critical to ensuring health innovations are adopted in equitable ways and improve health for all population groups.

5) Ensure technology serves the people it’s intended for.

All healthcare services, including those that are digital, must be co-created in an inclusive way with the participation of a variety of healthcare stakeholders — notably healthcare workers and patients. This ensures the solutions are designed to meet their needs and do not reproduce or augment societal biases.

Collaboration for health equity

Collaboration across the healthcare community, underpinned by strategic public-private partnerships, will ensure that cutting edge solutions are scaled effectively and meet the needs of populations, especially those in rural areas. Policymakers must cooperate directly with scientists and entrepreneurs to develop standards for data use and interoperability. Global health initiatives like Movement Health 2030 are working with these stakeholder groups to ensure that it is easier for health systems to roll out effective technologies that expand healthcare access for all.

Keeping ethics front of mind when adopting digital health technologies is essential to ensure that these innovations genuinely serve people’s needs, rather than reproducing or even augmenting societal inequities.

Now is the time to rapidly scale up multi-stakeholder collaborations and transform health systems to better cope with the demands of today and the future. Only by working together and being bold can we meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of achieving good health and wellbeing for all by 2030.

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