The digital health revolution: what does it mean for emerging markets?
Monique Mrazek and Xiaomin Miou
Monique Mrazek and Xiaomin Mou
Monique Mrazek is a Senior Investment Officer at the International Finance Corporation (IFC). Xiaomin Mou is a Senior Investment Officer with IFC Venture Capital.
Improving access to quality and affordable health care is a challenge for every country. This is particularly so for emerging markets with scarce public resources, inadequate health care infrastructure, and shortages of trained health professionals. Digital health offers new ways to deliver health services, and could arguably bring the most benefit in addressing gaps where health care challenges are the most severe.
When we hear the term ‘digital health,’ it is sometimes used interchangeably with the terms ‘connected health,’ ‘e-health’ or ‘mobile health.’ These all refer to the ever-evolving concept that encompasses the harnessing of digital technologies, social networks, mobile solutions, data, the cloud, wireless sensors, and other health IT information solutions to deliver health care in a remote and virtually connected way. This is a rapidly growing segment: according to CB Insights, $5.8 billion was invested in it in 2015, a trend which continues in 2016.
The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the arm of the World Bank Group that invests in the private sector in emerging markets, is actively looking to support the evolving digital health trend. This year, IFC launched TechEmerge, a matchmaking program that aims to accelerate technology deployment in emerging markets. The first pilot of the program connected health sector innovators from India and abroad to leading health care providers in India. Many of the Indian health care providers prioritized digital health solutions, recognizing these could enable them to deliver care and reach underserved patients in a new way. As a result, a number of the solutions being piloted through the program have a digital health component.
IFC is also seeking investment opportunities that support the digital enablement of health care through its dedicated Venture Capital group that invests in technology-driven businesses around the world. One such example was IFC’s investment in Portea Medical, India’s leading home care provider that is highly digitally enabled. Portea leverages mobile apps, connected diagnostic tools and monitoring solutions that enable shared information to deliver care more efficiently and ultimately bring better outcomes to its patients.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the rapid mobile internet penetration, including increasingly smart-phones, has given a boost to the deployment of digital health. A variety of mobile health apps have been built with government and NGO support, particularly in the area of maternal and child health. Increasingly, commercial digital health solutions developed on the continent, and addressing pain points of health care delivery for patients in Africa, are starting to emerge. Beyond health services, digital health application in pharmaceutical distribution and supply chain could reduce counterfeits, and add transparency to drug pricing and utilization, all challenges that have been long overdue in being addressed.
Challenges remain on the infrastructure side to support wider deployment of these solutions in Africa, including the need for improved data network coverage. Nevertheless, entrepreneurs in Africa, as in other emerging markets, have a blue ocean to leapfrog Western health care models and build a new paradigm for health care delivery.
Encouragingly we are increasingly seeing innovative health service delivery models in Africa and many other emerging markets that leverage digital health to reach patients beyond the main cities, in lower income segments, and at a more affordable price point.
Looking to the future, if we wish to further realize the potential of digital health, global health researchers and practitioners will need to consider regulatory and policy frameworks. The right balance needs to be considered, for instance, between ensuring that an individual patient’s health data remains private and secure, while enabling its aggregation in a de-identified manner to support analytic tools that benefit the wider population. In some cases, existing patient data laws limit video or mobile consultations between patients and health providers. These restrictions may need to be reconsidered if allowing these services offers a net economic benefit to patients and health systems alike. Some regulatory reforms, such as allowing for electronic prescribing, seem like a clear opportunity to improve efficiency, transparency and most importantly patient outcomes.
While the private sector may be more nimble-footed to quickly take up digital health solutions, the benefits to the public sector are equally clear and global health researchers and practitioners should also be considering how governments can be preparing a path to integrate these solutions to the benefit of all. As more digital health solutions emerge and integrate in care settings, global health researchers and practitioners should evaluate the emerging models for impact, affordability and sustainability, amongst others.
As innovation continues to create new technologies, and obstacles to deploying them are overcome, the global health community should continue to embrace and promote digital health as a new pillar toward achieving pro-development health outcomes.
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