According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which include cardiovascular diseases, cancers, respiratory diseases and diabetes, account for more than 70% of deaths globally each year.
By Jennifer Esposito
Several organisations have warned that NCDs could be the next global pandemic.
Low-to-middle-income countries (LMICs) are disproportionately affected by NCDs. One reason for this is that the healthcare infrastructure and delivery systems in LMICs have been built largely with the intent to treat communicable diseases (such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis).
Underinvestment in strong primary care systems and preventive services has left LMICs ill-equipped to care for the rapidly growing number of individuals who suffer from NCDs.
Governments and healthcare leaders in LMICs are redirecting their attention toward NCDs, and are eager to adopt new models of care and solutions that prevent and treat these diseases.
Digital heath is the intersection of digital technology with healthcare delivery and aims to make care more precise, personalised, and efficient.
Digital technology such as analytics, location tracking, social media, and other technology have proven to be powerful tools in predicting and mitigating epidemics, and in fighting communicable diseases. The use of digital technology holds just as much promise for combatting NCDs.
Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development
Together with the Novartis Foundation, Intel co-chaired the Working Group on Digital Health for the Broadband Commission. The Working Group has published a new report, “The promise of digital health to address non-communicable diseases and accelerate universal health coverage in low-and middle-income countries,” that provides actionable recommendations for a range of stakeholders – government leaders, policy makers, providers – who are in the initial stages of building the infrastructure and systems to support sustainable digital health programs to prevent and treat NCDs.
The Broadband Commission’s Six Building Blocks
The Broadband Commission report includes the following six building blocks that warrant careful consideration and strategic planning when embarking on healthcare digitalisation:
* Strategy, leadership, and governance;
* Regulation and policies;
* Communication, infrastructure, and common platforms;
* Partnerships; and
* Financing models
The Future of Digital Health and NCDs
In high-income countries (HICs), we continue to observe advancements in digital health and how they are changing patient care, particularly for NCDs.
We’ve seen how, for example, real-time systems and monitors can continuously track a patient’s vital signs, allowing for clinicians to anticipate life-threatening incidents and intervene before they occur.
We’ve seen how the proliferation of electronic health records gives providers a more complete picture of a patient’s health, including social determinants of health, which allows for more tailored treatment and patient-centred care.
We’ve seen how digital technology can improve the drug supply chain and prevent pharmaceutical counterfeiting, both of which are important for efficiently and safely getting medications to patients with NCDs.
We’ve also seen how tele-health capabilities have enabled communication between clinicians and between clinicians and patients, improving access to quality care for individuals in rural or underserved communities.
Digital health’s full potential is far from realised in HICs, especially as technologies such as AI, 5G, and blockchain become more integrated throughout the healthcare ecosystem.
Through descriptive case studies, the report highlights how some of these digital health use cases are already in use in LMICs, and also notes how LMICs may have an advantage over HICs in the adoption and scaling of digital health.
For example, LMICs are less encumbered by legacy systems that can slow the adoption of new technologies. LMICs can also learn from and avoid the pitfalls that HICs have experienced (e.g., building siloed data systems that prevent interoperability).
LMICs also have the opportunity to incorporate AI, 5G and blockchain into their healthcare systems from inception, instead of bolting them onto existing systems in the future.