Universal Health Coverage: digital technology as part of the solution

Each month, we highlight a recent development, initiative or trend in the technology and SDGs landscape. In this month’s story, we focus on how organizations are using digital technology to ensure everyone can access healthcare without experiencing financial hardship. 

“At least half the global population does not have access to essential health services and many of those who do suffer undue financial hardship, potentially pushing them into extreme poverty.” This is the stark assessment, in 2019, of the world’s current progress towards achieving universal health coverage (UHC). Over 3.8 billion people cannot access the preventative, curative, rehabilitative and palliative health services they need without suffering financial hardship. This number is so big it may be hard to grasp – it would take over 120 years for someone to count all these men, women and children one per second.

Achieving UHC is not only essential if we are to realize the third globally-adopted UN sustainable development goal on health and wellbeing, but it is also vital to enabling progress on a wide range of other dependent sustainable development goals. This is because a healthy person is also a person who can learn, work, escape poverty, and support their families and communities. Delivering good health will contribute significant economic benefits both to individuals and to the broader economy. One recent estimate found that the largest health and wellbeing related business opportunities for example, could be worth US$1.8 trillion in 2030.

Delivering UHC requires ambitious and coordinated action to strengthen global health systems. Key challenges include ensuring appropriate financing mechanisms and investment, a skilled and available workforce, well-designed health service delivery platforms and good governance. Companies might be forgiven for assuming these are problems for governments, NGOs and/or those operating within the health or pharmaceutical sectors. However, whilst progress will necessarily involve these actors, the sincere and determined collaboration of the broader private sector, including digital technology companies, will also be vital.

In the remainder of this article, we share examples of companies and organizations deploying digital technology to enable and accelerate progress towards universal health coverage.

Scaling access to information and training

Digital technology solutions can provide access to information at scale and this can help save lives in areas that have lower access to medicines and care. Like many other innovators in this area, 2030 Vision partner, Be He@lthy, Be Mobile, takes advantage of the widespread reach of mobile phones. They use mobile phones to help prevent and manage non communicable diseases by providing information. This simple mechanism can be used to address a number of barriers to achieving UHC. For example, training can be provided to health workers to increase a health system’s capacity. And information direct to mobile users can empower them to make healthier lifestyle choices that in turn could prevent them from developing an NCD – for example in India over 2.1 million people are registered for Be He@lthy, Be Mobile’s Tobacco Cessation service.

Improving the efficiency of healthcare

Digital solutions can be deployed to improve the efficiency of healthcare delivery and systems. Start-up Simprints provide a digital biometric system that can be integrated into existing mobile tools and project set ups to allow individuals to take key body measurements and perform calculations. These can then be monitored and measured using data analytics to provide critical insights that can improve the efficiency of healthcare delivery, including in developing countries. In Nigeria, Unicef and the Economic Policy Research Institute use Simprints’ platform to monitor the uptake of vital maternal health services and also promote transparency in healthcare delivery by verifying that women receive their cash disbursements. Watsi uses the Simprints’ system to enroll and identify villagers in Uganda for their crowd-funded health services - and the data the system collects allows them to continuously improve their delivery of healthcare.

GlaxoSmithKline’s mVacciNation mobile platform similarly takes advantage of the penetration of mobile devices in Africa, to increase child vaccination and so help to tackle infectious diseases. The platform provides a stock visibility system to improve management, an electronic medical record, and reminders to caregivers when children need vaccines. Following an initial pilot in Mozambique in 2012, the initiative has been scaled and rolled out to Tanzania and Nigeria also.

Creating new medicines for everyone

Innovations in digital technology are showing extraordinary promise when it comes to the development of new treatments and cures. A recent example of this is Alphabet DeepMind’s new artificial intelligence program AlphaFold. This program was able to predict the 3D shapes of proteins - the molecular workhorses of the human body – more accurately and significantly faster than experienced biologists, from just a list of each proteins’ chemical components. As proteins are frequently the molecules that go wrong in disease, this breakthrough has potential to accelerate the development of new medicines.

Other technology companies are exploring the area also. Recursion is using robotics and machine learning to run and process hundreds of thousands of miniature experiments on diseased cells each week and Facebook has published a paper on using deep learning to analyze proteins.

As interest in this area grows, it will be important to ensure effort is channeled towards urgent diseases and priority areas, not just lucrative western diseases. This means businesses will need to collaborate with international global health experts and other stakeholders, to align on priorities that ensure poverty-related diseases such as child and maternal mortality, malaria and tuberculosis are addressed.

The decade of action to come

In the same progress report quoted at the start of this article, the UN Secretary General also outlines a “systemic gap” in the use of digital technology for achieving the global goals by 2030. As the world approaches the start of the 2020s’ “decade of action”, it will be vital for all sectors and stakeholders to find ways to work together to address this gap so that everyone around the world can enjoy the best possible health without having to endure poverty.

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