Broadband Commission Working Group: New Report on Digital Health Released

Despite its promise, digital health is yet to reach scale in many of the countries which need it most. A new report from the Novartis Foundation, Nokia and the Broadband Commission Working Group on Digital Health explores what it takes to change this.
Feb 28, 2017 8:00 AM ET

The potential for harnessing the exponential growth in information and communications technology (ICT) to meet health challenges is clear. Mobile is the fastest adopted technology of all time: in 1991, mobile cellular penetration stood at less than 1%, compared to 99.7% in 2016 – and there will be an estimated 5.6 billion smartphones by 2020. Around 90% of that growth will come from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

Many LMICs are at a critical juncture. While still working to manage infectious diseases, these countries are now faced with the rising tide of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like heart disease, diabetes and cancer.  Thanks to the advent of the digital age, we now have the potential to revolutionize how healthcare is delivered.  Over the past few years, this promise has led to digital health solutions being built into many health improvement programs in LMIC.

Despite its potential, however, the digital health landscape in LMICs today is highly fragmented. The result is a myriad of projects and applications that rarely reach scale and – if they were to expand – could even strain health systems.  

A new report from the Digital Health Working Group of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development seeks to bring more understanding to the key elements of an effective, sustainable digital health program. Co-chaired by the Novartis Foundation and technology giant Nokia in 2016, the Working Group set out to identify countries and governments that have managed to scale digital health, to showcase best practices and lessons learned. Their report seeks to bring more understanding to the key elements of an effective, sustainable digital health programs.  It especially stresses the importance of government leadership, governance, and intragovernmental cooperation ­– for leaders and policy makers in health and ICT sectors.

The Novartis Foundation is a philanthropic organization pioneering innovative healthcare models that can have a transformational impact on the health of the poorest populations; the organization believes optimizing digital health supports the Foundation’s programmatic and policy work to improve health outcomes in low-income settings: from expanding access through telemedicine in Ghana, accelerating leprosy diagnosis with digital health technologies in the Philippines, to empowering the self-management of hypertension Vietnam and Ghana.

“With digital health solutions, we must address the priority health needs of a country,” says Ann Aerts, Head of the Novartis Foundation. “To do this, we need continuous committed leadership from government with sustained financial resources to ensure a strong national digital health strategy. A growing number of technology-based health initiatives have taken shape in recent years. Only a few of those have reached scale and achieved long-term sustainability – the majority of projects have not made it past the pilot phase. That is why sustained leadership of policy makers and intragovernmental collaboration must guide the progress of designing and implementing a national digital health strategy, beginning at the planning stage.”

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