Digital technology must become part of health systems – as fundamental as hospital beds
Reflections in advance of the 73rd United Nations General Assembly
Digital health – which is where digital technology supports healthcare provision – is probably the most powerful enabler that low- and middle-income communities can use to fight non-communicable diseases and achieve universal health coverage.
NCDs such as heart and lung diseases, cancers and diabetes are responsible for more deaths than any other disease. They kill over 40 million people every year, including young people – creating a devastating effect on families and the economy. Over 85% of NCD deaths occur in low and middle-income countries, placing particular strain on health systems that were mostly designed to deliver acute care for infectious diseases.
“It’s time for the world to focus on NCDs.” This is the message the Novartis Foundation will take to the 73rd United National General Assembly in New York. This year’s event is more important than ever for us and our partners, given its timely focus on the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). As a medical doctor, I know how patients and their families suffer from these mostly-avoidable diseases. It’s high time for the world to focus more on NCDs, and to harness digital health to reimagine how health systems can address this burden.
Digital technology is already revolutionizing health care
Worldwide, digital tools are leading to better and faster healthcare, which is:
More empowering and accessible for patients
More efficient for providers, and
More cost-effective for health systems
Despite this potential, the myriad of digital health solutions often lack a clear strategy and purpose. Consequently, they struggle to progress beyond the pilot phase, to become financially viable and integrate into national health systems.
To realize the full potential of digital health,digital technology must become an integral part of health systems, just as fundamental as hospital beds are
This is why the Novartis Foundation has been honored to co-chair with Intel the Broadband Commission Working Group on Digital Health. This year, the group has focused on how technology can innovate healthcare for NCDs. We are excited to launch our new report during the United Nations General Assembly next week. Entitled ‘The Promise of Digital Health: Addressing Non-communicable Diseases to Accelerate Universal Health Coverage in LMICs’, it offers pragmatic advice and best practice examples to policy makers and other stakeholders, to help them reimagine how digital health can address NCDs.
Novartis Foundation initiatives leverage digital health potential
The Novartis Foundation has used digital technology throughout its initiatives for the past decade. Some of our digital heath-driven solutions are achieving scale, showing us what can be achieved. One of the best things about digital is that success doesn’t always rely on the most costly technology – more often the simplest solutions are the most successful. For example, the Ghana health authorities have transformed our telemedicine model in Ghana into a national telemedicine service that is already providing access to better quality healthcare for over six million people, many living in remote areas. This also saves the health system significant resources as telemedicine helps avoid unnecessary hospital referrals.
Bring hypertension services closer to places where people live
Similarly, our Community-based Hypertension Improvement Program (ComHIP) in Ghana brings hypertension services closer to the community – to places where people live, work and shop. It leverages both digital technology – such as tablets and mobile phones – and multi-sector partnerships, to optimize hypertension screening opportunities outside of the health system. Digital health forms the glue that links people who screen positive for hypertension to community nurses or local health services for follow up. This simple model significantly improved blood pressure control rates, and the Ghana health authorities have committed to applying it to several other areas in the country, including the capital city. Our colleague Peter Lamptey will present the ComHIP results in New York next week, and we hope it inspires other policymakers in Africa to introduce the model to other countries.
Our work at the Novartis Foundation has taught us that when trying to address complex problems such as NCDs, you can’t achieve much alone. Successful innovative solutions always result from partnerships between different sectors and disciplines that bundle resources and expertise. This strategy is behind the Novartis Foundation urban health initiative, Better Hearts Better Cities, where governments, private sector partners and civil society work together to improve cardiovascular health in urban populations.
The Novartis Foundation will co-host two side events on September 26 at UNGA 2018.
Together with Intel, we will present and launch a report on digital health and NCDs, which results from the work of the Broadband Commission Working Group on Digital Health.
We will also discuss how innovative public-private partnerships are accelerating Universal Health Coverage in countries stretching from Mongolia to Senegal. We are hosting this event in partnership with the Africa Healthcare Federation, the International Society for Urban Health, IntraHealth International, The Frontline Health Workers Coalition and the United Nations Foundation.