May 24, 2017 |

The power and promise of digital health for Africa

African leaders commit to national digital health plans at World Health Assembly, could save billions of health care dollars by 2030.
A man and a woman look at a laptop computer at a desk.
Paper records will eventually be a thing of the past as countries across Africa implement national digital health strategies. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

Billions of dollars in health care cost savings (US$200 billion by 2030). More accessible health care services for people in hard-to-reach places. The ability to stamp out emerging epidemics before they reach crisis level. Universal health coverage.

These are the promises of digital health.

African leaders gathered at the African Ministerial Dialogue on Digital Health Leadership at the 2017 World Health Assembly to affirm their commitment to digital health and identify the pathway to achieving strong digital health systems in their countries.

Which pathway did each leader identify? The development and implementation of a single national digital health strategy for each country. And, critically, coordinated buy-in for that strategy from all investors and partners working in the country.

Why national digital health strategies? Why now?

Today, the digital health landscape is plagued by “pilotitis,” the expansion of numerous pilot digital health projects that rarely reach scale and fail to connect to a national strategy. In its 2017 report “Digital Health: A call for Government Leadership and Cooperation between ICT and Health,” the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development affirms that national digital health strategies are a key way to meet this challenge.

A national digital health strategy outlines a country’s unique digital health priorities, as well as the various regulations, policies, and systems needed to realize them. It’s a blueprint for an integrated digital health system that connects everything from patient electronic health records to mHealth phone applications, resulting in real-time, high-quality data that can be used to maximize health outcomes.

A senior representative speaking on behalf of Dr. Oly Ilunga Kalunga, Honorable Minister of Public Health from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), reminded us of the urgency in developing and implementing digital health strategies: “We’ve faced eight Ebola epidemics in the DRC, and we’ve used digital tools from our strategy in responding to the last two. They allow us to get real-time data from where the epidemic is actually happening, two times a day, every day.”

How do we get there?

It’s actually quite simple:

1. Align activities and investments behind a country’s national digital health strategy.

According to the 2015 World Health Organization’s eHealth survey, 63 percent of responding countries have developed eHealth strategies. During the African Ministerial Dialogue, Dr. Awa Marie Coll Seck, Honorable Minister of Health for Senegal, reminded the audience that successful implementation of a national digital health strategy depends on all stakeholders aligning to it.

In practice, this means honoring the digital health priorities laid forth by a country. If a country prioritizes investments in X, donor organizations shouldn’t decide instead to invest in Y.

2. Coordinate, coordinate, coordinate.

The African Ministerial Dialogue revealed that too often, partners who invest in digital health technologies in countries aren’t coordinating effectively. Often, each organization funds its own new digital mobile application instead of coordinating their investments into scalable solutions that have already been proven to work.

3. Build local capacity.

Strong digital health systems depend on a force of local digital technology developers, a digitally trained health workforce, and tech literate in-country leadership. By building and fostering technical capacity for digital innovation across the African continent, we ensure that decision-makers at all levels have both the information and technical know-how needed to meet their goals for improved health outcomes.

The digital health initiative responds to these three objectives. Launched in October 2016, the initiative is a partnership between PATH, the United States Agency for International Development, and more than 40 collaborating partners and donors. It focuses on coordinating investments in proven digital technologies that can be reused and adapted by multiple countries. It also creates the next generation of technology developers and tech-savvy leaders on the African continent by supporting peer networks at country and regional levels.

A key component of this work is the creation of an African Alliance of Digital Health Networks. This coordinating umbrella network will serve as secretariat for existing digital health networks across the continent. Its goal is to ensure that African countries have the best and most appropriate support needed to develop strong digital health systems. The Alliance has already received commitments from donors and supporters. PATH’s digital health initiative is planning an exciting series of events and meetings over the next six months to build momentum for the Alliance, leading up to a formal launch event in Africa in early 2018.

PATH, the Novartis Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored the African Ministerial Dialogue on Digital Health Leadership on May 22, 2017. The event was co-hosted by Professor Isaac Folorunso Adewole (Honorable Minister of Health, Nigeria), Dr. Patrick Ndimubanzi (Honorable Minister of State, Public Health, and Primary Health Care, Rwanda), and Professor Awa Marie Coll Seck (Honorable Minister of Health, Senegal).

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