December 5, 2017 |

Navigating digital transformation

8 trends defining the future of global digital health
Three data collectors checking a smartphone.
Digital innovations, such as using smartphones to track malaria in remote areas, are essential to achieving health equity now and in the future. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

Whether on the political, scientific, or cultural front, the world today is in a state of flux. Reviews from BCG, McKinsey, Deloitte, and Accenture highlight major demographic shifts, the increasing importance of technology in health, and the convergence of business and technical considerations. Digital platforms and solutions are emerging as a source of hope, inspiration, and connection.

The Digital Health team at PATH has spent the last year reviewing global analyses, listening to end users and partners in the field, and exchanging perspectives throughout the global digital health community about issues that are both driving and impacting the global health sector.

Globalization and localization of digital health

As political and economic power shift to rapidly growing countries, local institutions are increasingly influential in the traditional aid sector. Local governments have the capacity and resources to invest in infrastructure and take on new levels of responsibility. Local businesses and nonprofits are increasingly capable of managing technical partnerships in support of development.

What this means for global digital health:

  • Traditional donors more strongly encourage local hiring and innovation.
  • International organizations curate peer networks and foster global innovation hubs that allow diverse, virtual teams to innovate and diffuse innovations faster and better.
  • These global networks and hubs enable the next wave of global digital health innovations.

Growing power of (some) end users

The GSMA forecasts mobile internet subscriptions will hit 56% by 2020. A large percentage of these users are on social media networks, which provide a direct link between end users and local and global communities, as well as a new way to exert influence on their own health and society. This growth, however, is not equitable. Women in South Asia are 38% less likely to own a mobile phone than men, and the gender gap in digital access is growing in Africa. Digital health investors and implementers should consider gender and cultural issues to help address equity gaps.

What this means for global digital health:

  • Low-income populations monitor and manage their own health digitally, resulting in lower rates of noncommunicable diseases.
  • Public health programs use social media platforms to share information and gather feedback.
  • Women use technology to gather critical health information, make peer connections, and link directly to experts.

Digital data transforms health systems

A fully digitized health system connects families living in remote areas to health providers. It diversifies and expands the biodata available for computational analysis, ensuring that innovations in personalized medicine address global needs equitably. And digitization drives down costs in health system by enabling earlier identification of disease, leaner supply chains, and more efficient operations. The enormous potential value of data can be realized with fast, high-volume, real-time data processing. Cloud-based solutions allow programs to affordably manage and find value from big data.

What this means for global digital health:

  • Strong cloud-based governance and regulatory frameworks address country concerns about data sovereignty.
  • Countries migrate to robust cloud-based solutions and invest in local infrastructure and staff to meet the system requirements of big data.

Broadening to community-wide resiliency

In our connected world, a local crisis has the potential to impact the global community. Loss of homes due to climate change, increased migration, human conflict, and extreme poverty all pose risks to health, and all require interventions that extend far beyond the traditional health system. Organizations that use information and communication technology for development, including those focused on improving health outcomes, will need to broaden beyond historic aid siloes and understand how different sectors impact each other to improve the resiliency of communities in crises.

What this means for global digital health:

  • Digital platforms break down programmatic barriers by bridging data divides and proving the value of connecting silos.
  • Digital platforms continue to increase responsiveness to crises and accelerate recovery timelines.
  • Funders support cross-sectoral solutions that holistically address individuals and community needs.

Merging of digital health sectors – global with local and public with private

While health equity increases throughout the world, remaining inequality has become more visible because of increased access to information and decreasing physical proximity between the healthy and unhealthy. Twenty years ago, those with the lowest life expectancies were concentrated in low-income countries. Today, in high-income cities like Seattle in the US (where PATH is headquartered), life expectancy may vary by more than 15 years, depending on neighborhood.

What this means for global digital health:

  • The global digital health sector plays a role in supporting low-income communities in wealthy countries, bringing expertise in building solutions for low-resource settings.
  • As middle-income communities grow in countries like India and China, the global digital health sector works with private-sector partners that bring more sophisticated software and services.

More support for human-centered care

Over the coming years, longer lifespans, demographics shifts, and a growing global middle class will alter the global burden of disease and demands on health systems. Noncommunicable, chronic conditions that require ongoing management will increase. Whether bolstering mental health or managing hypertension, interventions need to be part of a holistic, interactive solution that takes individualized, lifelong approaches.

What this means for global digital health:

  • Digital tools empower end users to adopt or reinforce health behaviors (rather than delivering digital solutions via health provider intermediaries).
  • Public health programs efficiently monitor the health of communities to prioritize interventions.
  • Interventions that have worked for wealthier populations are adapted to work in low-resource settings.

More support for cost-saving solutions

Lower-income countries already struggle to resource their health systems; meanwhile, new health technologies, longer-living populations and noncommunicable diseases will continue to drive up costs per patient.

What this means for global digital health:

  • Digital health interventions are developed to increase affordability of preventing, treating, and monitoring population health.
  • Digital information systems provide visibility into cost-containment opportunities and enable monitoring of which solutions are successful.
  • New business and health insurance models are developed to achieve universal health coverage.
  • Health insurance providers have sophisticated approaches to cost containment without sacrificing patient outcomes and are increasingly present as advisors, partners, and implementers in low-resource settings.

Growing focus on data ownership, ethics, and rights

Demand for data has never been higher. Traditional players in the sector (including PATH) want data to improve program effectiveness and get ahead of the anti-globalization sentiment that threatens global development programs. New players (e.g., an increasingly engaged private sector) need data to learn how to best add value in the sector. Yet as data grows in value, data suppliers and owners form an increasingly complex and fragmented network, each with their own motivations for data use. This network often exists outside a comprehensive regulatory environment, creating a “wild west” atmosphere for the management and use of health data.

What this means for global digital health:

  • New ownership and privacy policies protect fundamental human rights.
  • Data monetization drives social outcomes (rather than risking them).
  • Collective, successful navigation ensures future growth for the sector, and digital global health’s ability to make lives better rather than worse.
Infographic: "global trends driving and impacting the global health sector"
What do these 8 global trends mean for the global digital health sector? Click to enlarge. Illustration: PATH.

New ways of thinking for global digital health

Our hope is that this synthesis inspires our peers to discussion and debate among our peers, starting at this week’s Global Digital Health Forum (see an overview from Amanda BenDor, one of the cochairs). Over time, a common perspective on the evolutions of the global digital health sector can inform a powerful, collective response. At PATH, we continue to see digital innovations as essential to achieving health equity now and in the future. And we know that we’ll need to work together as a community to go far in achieving this important goal.

For more information on global trends, these materials have great insights:

General

Globalization and localization of digital health

Growing power of (some) end users

Broadening to community-wide resiliency

Merging of digital health sectors 

More support for human-centered care

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  • Skye Gilbert is the deputy director of Digital Health Solutions at PATH.