Digital health can be a catalyst for greater equity
- The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital health solutions.
- This shift to digitalization can be a powerful force for achieving health equity.
- To do this, we will need to rethink the fundamentals of health care delivery.
The digital revolution was well underway even before COVID-19, but disruptive technologies need to be widely adopted before society adapts to them. However, the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have helped catalyze the transition to a digital ecosystem.
A McKinsey Global Survey found that companies accelerated the digitization of their customer and supply chain interactions and internal operations by three to four years. A GlobalData survey, meanwhile, found that 35% of pharma professionals believe that COVID-19 has advanced digital transformation in the pharma industry by more than five years.
Digitization was essential to support supply and demand in the wider global economy, thus avoiding an irreversible shock. In the healthcare sector as well, the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital, which has led to a significant transformation in the delivery of healthcare in a short time.
Embrace digital health care to improve health equity
Digitization and the introduction of telemedicine services have demonstrably improved equity in the delivery of health care services. Digital technology makes health care proactive rather than reactive, expanding and enabling access to quality health care for communities that have traditionally been underserved or marginalized.
All of these benefits go beyond how digital healthcare can deliver services to previously hard-to-reach communities with the same level and quality of high-end healthcare facilities. The full impact of digital health lies in its ability to both foster inclusion across age, gender, race and close gaps in primary healthcare, boosting productivity by freeing up doctors repetitive tasks and allowing them to focus on care and spend more time with patients. , and shift to personalized medicine.
Digitization also fosters collaboration which, in turn, pushes the frontiers of digital health research. In the future, it is digital healthcare that will ensure the delivery of value-driven care while improving health with meaningful outcomes. It could even pave the way for the realization of universal health care.
Rethinking the fundamentals
However, to achieve true health equity, we need to rethink the fundamentals of integrated health care and technology, and not simply resort to digitizing traditional models of health care delivery. We need to assess and understand the needs of underrepresented populations and create tailored digital solutions that will provide precise and targeted health interventions that address their immediate issues. One way is to assess the shared needs of particular groups and find a solution using digital tools that will address the challenges and increase the effectiveness and efficiency of care.
At the same time, we need to be aware of barriers to digital access and literacy that can present challenges for health equity. Globally, while a record 4.9 billion people used the internet in 2021, approximately 37% or 2.9 billion people are still offline. The situation is similar in India, where 61% used the internet in 2021 – a significant jump from the 21% who logged on in 2017, but still leaves 39% of our large population of 1.4 billion out of the equation.
A thorough understanding of the interplay of social, cultural, and economic realities is needed to overcome the barriers to technology access that compound health inequities. We must address connectivity, affordability, and accessibility with appropriate investments, innovative and inclusive solutions, and political support to close the gaps and create a sustainable holistic healthcare solution.
The importance of equity in vaccines
As the world emerges from the pandemic, new variants continue to pose challenges to controlling infection and returning the world to normal. There is an urgent need to increase immunization coverage and ensure vaccine equity. While most developed countries have vaccinated the majority of their population, the same is not true in many developing and low-income countries.
For example, a little more 7.5% of people in Africa have been fully vaccinated; in comparison, more than 55% of Britons received three doses of vaccine. Equitable access to vaccines will also spur economic recovery by up to a $7.93 billion increase in global GDP for every million people vaccinated. Factors hampering progress include supply, capacity and logistical issues, and vaccine hesitancy. While shipments are on the rise, technology will still be needed to ensure optimal distribution of supply, as well as precise measurement and monitoring.
Digital technology for vaccine distribution
Logistical challenges include maintaining effective cold chains to maintain potency, ensuring smooth transition of shipments across international borders, effective planning and monitoring of timely vaccine administration to a large population. These include multiple stakeholders operating in silos with digital technology providing solutions to bring them all onto the same “virtual” page so that the supply chain runs like a well-oiled machine.
Digital supply chain management systems provide visibility to stakeholders at all points in the supply chain with flexibility for agile responses to any situation. It is essential to ensure the authenticity of the vaccine provided and to ensure that communications are consistent and based on evidence about the vaccination program so that vaccination against COVID is an equitable quality intervention and 100% counted in the fight against the spread of the virus.
Next steps to promote digital healthcare
Technology can ensure equity in health just as it has ensured equity in the vaccination of the Indian population; 1.6 billion doses have been administered accompanied by downloadable digital vaccine certificates verifiable by QR codes. As we move forward and embrace digital technology to achieve health equity, we must design solutions that meet the needs of all populations and improve digital literacy. To do this, health personnel will need to combine clinical and technical skills. Digital has the potential to transform the entire supply chain, integrating design technology at every step, helping to drive agile and seamless value care.
The EDISON Alliance has recently published a white paper to guide partnerships in digital health, aiming to raise issues of inclusion from the start of a project, to maximize the opportunities of digital medicine and to chart a course for responsible and inclusive innovation in connected care. Only then will digital health solutions ensure access to digital health and truly advance health equity.