Happy New Year! WLSA kicks off the new year with some information about digital health and how it can make a positive impact on healthcare on a global scale.
When we think of digital health, we might think of our smartphones, apps, and the various other devices we use to track fitness and health in our everyday lives . Advancing technology has allowed digital health to make headway in areas of the world where only the most basic medical care—or even none—is available.
What is Digital Health?
Digital health has grown out of the field of mobile technology and eHealth systems. Digital health makes use of smartphones, tablets, computers, communications satellites, PDAs, patient monitors, various devices, applications, and other forms of mobile technology to manage healthcare. The digital health movement encourages and empowers patients to play an active role in their healthcare, and allows care givers to productively collaborate with patients to stay healthy.
Why is Digital Health Needed Across the World?
There are several motivating factors behind the growth of digital health in developing countries. These factors encourage healthcare professionals and government leaders to invest in digital health technology and opportunities.
- Many large rural populations don’t have basic healthcare services
- A small number of trained healthcare professionals, unlike places like the U.S.
- Many places have limited resources for the support of healthcare infrastructure
- Many developing countries experience high rates of disease without advanced healthcare like vaccines
- Rapid population growth exacerbates these problems
In a report from 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) proclaimed that there is a serious shortage of doctors, nurses, and qualified midwives in 57 countries worldwide. All of those 57 are developing—low and middle income—countries.
Many of these countries are in Africa. There are four times fewer trained and qualified healthcare workers in many African nations than there are in the United States. The WHO estimates that it would take an increase in healthcare workers of 140% to bring sub-Saharan Africa up to current standards of care, let alone see them into the future.
Add to this the burden of high disease rates and poor nutrition, and it’s easy to see how digital health offers these developing nations—not just in Africa, but also Asia, Central America, and beyond—and their citizens a better way to manage limited resources.
In 2000, the UN set forth its Millennium Development Goals. Among these were the following:
- Lower child mortality rates
- Better access to clean, safe drinking water
- Better prenatal and maternal care
- Combating AIDS/HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases
While a report in 2006 said that childhood immunizations and the number of births attended by skilled caregivers has improved, there has been little advancement in fighting HIV, AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other diseases. Safe, clean drinking water is still a dream for many in developing countries.
How Can Digital Health Help People in Developing Countries?
Digital health is being used to greater extent as developing countries develop better mobile communications systems. Once the systems are in place, digital health technology can be brought in and utilized, potentially changing the lives of millions of people.
Conditions can be diagnosed, important care can be delivered quickly and efficiently, and patients can stay educated about their health and how to stay healthy, thanks to digital health and the advancements made in mobile communications technology.
The growth of digital health has also allowed those in the poorer, more rural regions of the world to have a voice in healthcare, many for the first time. Digital health is liberating the general population of many developing areas as it provides better immediate healthcare and provisions for preventive healthcare as well.
One of the fastest growing and most useful of all of digital health technology is the mobile phone. Mobile phones allow populations and their clinicians and other healthcare workers to have better access to healthcare information and resources, right in the palm of their hands .
Real-World Digital Health in Action
The digital health movement, especially as it pertains to developing countries, is a work in progress that should expect tremendous growth over the coming years. Here are some current examples of digital health in action around the world.
- WHO is using digital health systems in South Africa to aid mothers with pregnancy, and postnatal and baby care by providing information via mobile phone messaging systems.
- Healthcare workers in Nigeria are helping to identify and treat infants born with AIDS by transmitting test results via mobile phone.
- Pakistani healthcare officials are using a combination of a cash lottery incentive and mobile testing to improve the number of properly immunized children in the country.
- In India, children in remote areas are learning about basic health and hygiene through Sesame Workshop India, a hotline number that can be accessed anytime, day or night, via mobile phone, along with an educational radio broadcast featuring characters from India’s version of Sesame Street.
- Apps have been designed to help raise awareness and offer tools for preventing, managing, and learning about diseases. We Count, for example, is a smart health application available for free download to African mobile subscribers. It addresses HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, injection safety, fake medicine, and other health and wellness topics. Apps like these put valuable information right in the hands of those in need.
- In India, Mobile Kunji, a work aid for 200,000 community health workers in Bihar, enables more effective communication directly with families to educate about important childbirth information. In this rural area, traditional customs govern childbirth, which has resulted in an unfortunately high rate of maternal and child mortality. For every 100,000 births, 300 mothers die, and 16% of infants die on the day of their birth. This app enables community workers to make a difference from within.
- Not all digital health initiatives take place in developing countries. Health care in China, which is among the world’s superpowers, has turned high-tech as healthcare reform brings about a more affordable and accessible health care system. For example, Dxy.cn, an online community for Chinese physicians, has built over 3 million members who share important information, ideas, and health care developments. Physicians have taken up microblogging as a major form of communicating health care advice and info.
Digital health can change the way we see health and healthcare around the world, opening up new possibilities for a healthier, more empowered planet. Stay tuned!