This piece was originally published by Women Deliver as part of their July 2018 series "Ensuring Access to Comprehensive Health Services."
Achieving universal health coverage (UHC) has very practical implications for women and girls. It means access to primary health services such as routine health screenings, family planning, and vaccinations.
Universal health coverage is defined as all individuals and communities having access to high-quality health services without financial hardship. The ambitious goal of achieving UHC worldwide was amplified when it was included as a target under Sustainable Development Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.
One factor that contributes to the belief that UHC is possible for all countries is the rapid spread of digital technologies, such as mobile technology. But you may be wondering: Why are digital technologies so critical when people lack access to necessities, such as medication and a well-equipped health facility?
The answer lies in the power of data, and specifically data that are turned into actionable information. Today, health facilities, even in rural areas, are increasingly equipped with mobile devices, health information systems, and other tools that not only collect health data but that target the right health worker with the right information for timely and effective action.
Recognizing the ability for digital technology to improve the accessibility, quality, and affordability of health care services, the member states of the 71st World Health Assembly (WHA) unanimously adopted a resolution on digital health in May 2018. The resolution urges countries to prioritize the greater utilization of digital technologies as a means of promoting equitable and universal access to health services.
To better illustrate the role of digital technology in improving health coverage for women and girls, you can look at how better data are driving more effective health service delivery at health care facilities and government agencies.
Health care facilities
Electronic data systems enable health care providers to more effectively serve their patients and communities by making essential data easier to collect and use. In Tanzania and Zambia, PATH has supported the governments in establishing electronic immunization registries through the BID Initiative. When a mother comes to a clinic with her baby, the child is registered, and the vaccinations given are recorded using a tablet. The electronic registries provide automated alerts for health care workers, allowing them to quickly see which children are due for a vaccination and to conduct the appropriate outreach if a child has missed a vaccination.
Accurate tracking is important for vaccines that require multiple doses over a set period, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. Tanzania, recognizing its high rates of cervical cancer, has newly launched an effort to ensure universal coverage of the HPV vaccine for girls. Accurate and actionable immunization data will be one important factor in ensuring the vaccine reaches all girls, on time.
Complete, timely, and gender-disaggregated data are critical for policymakers and government officials as they work to achieve universal health coverage. Without these data, policymakers are forced to develop budgets and plan resource allocation for their health care system without essential information, such as which regions have seen spikes in certain diseases and which health facilities are understaffed. Gender-sensitive data are also critical so that health officials can consider the unique health needs of women and girls.
In South Africa, the National Department of Health (NDOH) is improving data collection and resource allocation through the MomConnect initiative. At health facilities, health care workers use mobile devices to register pregnant women, more than 1.5 million to date, in the MomConnect system. The data collected are then shared with the NDOH giving national health officials a better understanding of the number of patients served at health facilities across the country. Once registered, pregnant women can also opt in to receive targeted messages on their mobile phone in line with their stage of pregnancy. These health promotion messages empower women to make informed decisions about their health and that of their newborns, such as when they need to visit a health facility.
While digital technology has led to improvements in the provision of health care for women and girls, it is also critical that all levels of the health system collect and use data responsibly. The digital health resolution adopted at WHA prioritizes data privacy, enabling women and girls to be the owners and drivers of how their data are used. The resolution emphasizes that countries should create appropriate data protection policies that include guidelines for data privacy and data-sharing, and procedures for informed consent that help ensure all patients understand what data are being collected and how they are being used.
Given the health system challenges that persist throughout the world, achieving UHC by 2030 may seem like an impossible goal. What has changed today is the role digital technology and data can play in helping actors at all levels of the health system achieve this goal, from patients being empowered to seek out the health services they need, to policymakers being able to more efficiently and accurately allocate health system resources.