Digital Health Systems Need To Consciously Involve Young People
Digital health
(L-R) Dr Conrad Tankou, Yifan Zhou, Sarah Tuytschaever, Joseline Carias Galeano, Sameer Pujari, and Dr Ilona Kickbusch at the event.

Achieving universal health coverage by 2030, as resolved by the World Health Assembly this week, should ideally bring along with it a bouquet of possibilities through digital technologies. 

Digital health technologies have improved the delivery of healthcare services by improving access to COVID-19 vaccination in Canada, and by improving access to breast and cervical cancer screening in Cameroon. 

A nuanced panel discussion organized by the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) and the International Pharmaceutical Students’ Federation (IPSF), and the commission, Governing Health Futures 2030: Growing up in a Digital World, at the sidelines of the World Health Assembly in Geneva deliberated on how to harness digital technology in service of global health.

Digital health must benefit vulnerable people

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the functioning of health systems around the world by cutting off access to much-needed regular medical care for millions of people. Not only did the pandemic push back the progress the world made in tackling diseases like HIV and tuberculosis, it also complicated people’s access to COVID-19 vaccines. 

Setting up an electronic documentation and information system at a clinic that provides care to vulnerable populations in Canada was one of the ways in which digital health worked wonders. 

As a member of a student group that worked closely with such clinics in Canada, Yifan Zhou, the chairperson of external relations at the IPSF, said that they focussed on not leaving behind vulnerable groups when designing digital solutions to solve healthcare problems. 

The student group also helped set up a digital model that provides appointments for vaccinations at clinics instead of walk-ins, which served as a preventative measure around COVID-19. 

“It’s important that digital solutions are designed for the communities that they serve. They don’t have to be really fancy, they just need to be practical to solve a problem,” Zhou pointed out. 

Dr Conrad Tankou, an Africa Young Innovators for Health awardee and medical doctor, added that while there is ample potential to combine the power of digital technology in healthcare, especially with the involvement of young people, there are difficulties in acquiring adequate resources to make it happen. 

“Clearly you need resources to be able to build the solution. And then you stumble on another situation where you need resources to carry pilots (projects). You need resources to carry out clinical trials, then you stumble on other resources, be able to get regulatory approvals and then bring it to the market,” he explained. “How do you as a young person navigate all of this?” 

As a possible solution to these burning questions, Tankou set up the Global Innovation and Creative space (GIC) in Africa, which brings together young professionals to collaborate on co-creating digital solutions to address healthcare problems. 

“The idea was to build a solution where women in remote areas can have access to screening and diagnosis [for cervical and breast cancer],” he said, adding that over time, this tool integrated other hardware technologies which enabled these women to access healthcare services from specialized healthcare service providers in cities, from their remote regions, based on their diagnosis.  

 Legal and ethical questions

Any conversation about leveraging digital technologies comes with legal and ethical concerns. Establishing governance principles rooted in the human rights of the patients and people these technologies serve is essential to take the idea forward, said Joseline Carias Galeano, general manager at RECAINSA

“We believe that in order to have digital health solutions, we need to have strong legal regulations that can secure the rights of the people.” 

This highlights the need for close collaborations between different sectors like academia, industry, governance, and technology. 

“I always feel like everyone has a piece of the puzzle,” said Sarah Tuytschaever, the digital care transformation lead at UCB

“It sounds much easier than it is, but how do we align all the incentives of these different factors and actually form that partnership?…And then when it comes to implementation, what we are always forgetting is we focus on the patient outcome.”

‘Cautiously optimistic’

While digital health is the buzzword in global health circles in the recent past, it is important to remain cautiously optimistic about its potential, said Sameer Pujari, lead for AI and digital frontier ecosystems at the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Highlighting the importance of scalability of the technologies used in improving healthcare and the incoming evidence even in food fortification aspects of global health, Pujari said, “There’s a lot of opportunities.. make sure that everyone who’s working on AI is cautiously optimistic and we use AI in a responsible fashion. I think that’s most important.” 

As the health sector evolves to include more digital tools to enhance quality, efficiency and reduce costs, it is equally crucial to ensure that it is not only gender-neutral but also demographically neutral, thus bringing in more men in healthcare delivery, which is currently dominated by women. 

“I urge young people to help us and to take the lead to rethink health systems and what health systems you want,” said Dr Ilona Kickbusch, senior distinguished fellow at the Geneva Graduate Institute. She added that seasoned global health leaders must consciously involve young professionals in co-designing digital health systems. 

“If we manage to develop a footprint for sustainable and equitable digital-first health systems, then we’ll have done our job. And we need that sooner rather than later.”

Image Credits: Twitter/Governing Health Futures 2030.

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