Digital healthcare can be a catalyst for greater equity – World Economic Forum

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The digital revolution was well underway even before COVID-19, but disruptive technology needs to be widely adopted before society adapts to it. However, the pandemic and the subsequently enforced lockdowns helped catalyse the transition to a digital ecosystem.
A McKinsey Global Survey found that companies had accelerated the digitalization of their customer and supply-chain interactions and their internal operations by three to four years. A GlobalData survey, meanwhile, found that 35% of pharmaceutical professionals believe COVID-19 has brought digital transformation in the pharmaceutical industry forwards by more than five years.
Digitalization was critical in sustaining supply and demand in the wider global economy, thus preventing an irreversible shock. In healthcare, too, the pandemic accelerated digital adoption, which has resulted in a significant transformation in healthcare delivery within a short period.
Digitalization and the introduction of telemedicine services have demonstrably improved equity in delivering health care services. Digital tech is making healthcare proactive as opposed to reactive, enlarging and enabling access to quality healthcare for communities that were traditionally underserved or marginalised.
All these benefits are over and above the way digital healthcare enables the delivery of 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 to close gaps in primary healthcare, driving productivity by freeing physicians from repetitive tasks and allowing them to focus on care and spending more time with patients, and moving to personalised medicine.
Digitalization also fosters collaboration that in turn expands the frontiers of digital health research. Looking ahead, it is digital healthcare that will ensure the delivery of value-focused care while improving health with meaningful outcomes. It could even pave the way for making universal healthcare a reality.
However, to achieve true health equity, we need to rethink the fundamentals of integrated healthcare and technology, and not just resort to digitalizing traditional models of healthcare delivery. We need to evaluate and understand the needs of underrepresented populations and create tailor-made digital solutions that will deliver precise, focused health interventions that address their immediate problems. One way is to assess the shared needs of particular groups and curate a solution using digital tools that will address the challenges and increase the efficacy and efficiency of care.
At the same time, we need to be mindful of the barriers to digital access and literacy that may present challenges to health equity. Globally, while a record 4.9 billion people used the internet in 2021, around 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 went online in 2017, but which still leaves 39% of our large 1.4 billion population out of the equation.
An intricate understanding of the interaction of social, cultural and economic realities is needed to overcome barriers to technology access that aggravate health inequalities. We need to address connectivity, affordability and accessibility with appropriate investments, innovative and inclusive solutions, and policy support in order to bridge the gaps and create a sustained holistic healthcare solution.
As the world emerges from the pandemic, new variants continue to pose challenges in controlling the infection and bringing the world to normalcy again. There is an urgent need to increase vaccine coverage and ensure vaccine equity. While most developed countries have vaccinated a majority of their population, the same is not the case in many developing and low-income countries.
For example, just over 7.5% of people in Africa have been fully vaccinated; by comparison, more than 55% of Brits have had three doses of vaccine. Equitable access to vaccines will also boost the economic recovery to the tune of a $7.93 billion increase in global GDP for every million people vaccinated. The factors hampering progress include issues with supply, capacity and logistical issues, and vaccine hesitancy. While shipments are on the rise, it will still require technology to ensure optimal distribution of the supply, as well as accurate measuring and monitoring.
The logistical challenges include maintaining effective cold chains to maintain potency, ensuring a smooth transition of shipments across international borders, efficient scheduling and monitoring of timely vaccine administration to a vast population. These comprise multiple stakeholders who function in siloes with digital technology providing solutions to bring them all on 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 vital to ensure the authenticity of the vaccine provided and ensure communications are consistent and evidence-based about the vaccine programme so that COVID vaccination is an equitable and 100% accounted quality intervention in the fight against the virus spread.
Technology can ensure health equity just as it ensured equity in vaccinating India’s 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 ensure health equity, we must design solutions that meet the needs of all populations as well as improve digital literacy. To ensure this, the healthcare workforce will need to combine both clinical and technical skills. Digital has the potential to transform the whole supply chain, by integrating design-thinking tech at every step that helps drive value care that is agile and transparent.
The EDISON Alliance recently published a white paper to guide partnerships in digital healthcare, aiming to raise questions of inclusion at the inception of a project, maximize the opportunities of digitally-enabled medicine and chart a course for responsible and inclusive innovation in connected care. It is only then that digital health solutions will ensure digital health access and truly advance health equity.

Shobana Kamineni, Executive Vice Chairperson, Apollo Hospitals Enterprise Limited
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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