Top trends that will define digital health in 2019

February 28, 2019 by Anna Volbrecht

PATH’s digital health team shares five trends that are likely to improve accessibility, affordability, and quality of health care for millions of people around the world.

Government health workers in Zambia uses data visualization software to track malaria transmission in real time so that his team can treat, prevent, and eliminate cases before they spread further. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

Zambian government health workers use real-time data updates from their region, and data visualization software, to track malaria cases and accelerate treatment and prevention. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

Over the past decade, digital health has embedded itself in our daily lives. Wearables and smart devices keep track of everything from calories burned to heart rate to sleep cycles to stairs climbed, providing users a dashboard of data and insights about their health and well-being. Expert medical advice is no longer confined to a doctor’s office, as video consultations and messaging services connect people to medical professionals from the comfort of their own home.

But perhaps nowhere do developments in digital tools and services hold more promise to improve an individual’s health outcomes than in low-resource settings across Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere.

Here are five promising trends that PATH is optimistic will improve accessibility, affordability, and quality of treatment for millions of people around the world:

14750.jpeg A health care worker in Rwanda fills out paperwork. Photo: PATH/Doune Porter.

A healthcare worker in Rwanda works at the intersection of digital and paper records. PATH/Doune Porter.

  1. Health data privacy and security for all

People everywhere are calling for increased security to protect their personal data and for a greater understanding of the rights they have over this information. Because health information systems gather the most sensitive information about us, ensuring the privacy and security of these systems is vital. At the same time, researchers at universities and in the private sector rely on health data to inspire medical breakthroughs. As global health care systems undergo digital transformation, it is essential to get the balance between security and accessibility right.

In response, the global community is painting a more nuanced understanding of how anonymity, de-identification, and big data work together, and how consumers can benefit from digital health without feeling at risk. Inspired by the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, governments such as Kenya are writing new laws and guidelines to clarify the rights of individuals over their digital data. And organizations, including Understanding Patient Data, are exploring how to make sure patients are fully informed about their digital rights, giving them greater power over their health data. This year, the global conversation about privacy and security will be codified into new guidelines for governments, technology developers, and health workers.

2. AI is a powerful tool for the next-gen health worker

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning open up powerful avenues for digitally enabled health care. For example, computerized learning systems can free up frontline health workers’ time by automating tasks like supply management. By tracking which medicines and supplies are available and where they are running low, these systems will streamline inventory management with computer precision, enabling health workers to spend more time directly with patients.

In addition, machine learning tools can assist in the detection of and response to potential disease outbreaks, allowing global systems to respond quickly to prevent epidemics. Applying machine learning could help reduce errors in contact tracing—a method used to find and monitor individuals potentially exposed to serious infectious diseases like malaria or Ebola. AI can also use health care data collected through routine visits to assess treatment options, helping health workers treat common health problems within their communities. We believe that 2019 will be a year when AI is unleashed on large data sets and machine learning is applied to diseases that disproportionately affect communities in low-resource environments.

3. Can we harness social media as a social good?

Billions of people connect through Facebook, WhatsApp, Weibo, and other social media platforms. But the impact of social media is both good and bad.

While these platforms grant unprecedented access to health information, it’s not always accurate, and in some cases it’s misleading. Researchers are also studying the role of social media consumption in exacerbating mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

But social media has proven it can advance health equity. For example, a new mother living in rural Kenya can message a Facebook chatbot to receive information on infant care, saving her half a day’s travel to the nearest health outpost. Adolescents can avoid social stigma by anonymously chatting online with providers about sexual and reproductive health information. Rural health workers can ask their colleagues for advice through WhatsApp, making it easier to manage difficult cases even when they’re hundreds of kilometers apart. And pilot programs, like the World Health Organization’s partnership with Google Fit, are exploring how personalized social media can be used to influence or “nudge” people toward healthy behaviors and choices.

Individuals need more resources to navigate information they’re relying on to make health choices. Governments, social media platforms, and civil society are all looking for new ways to promote good sources of information and rebuild trust in social networks. In 2019, the conversation about how we can make social media a social good will continue with a greater focus on truth and trust.

4. Digital systems and products will talk to each other

The next era of digital health won’t be defined by cutting-edge technologies—instead it will be defined by the seemingly simple connections that enable digital health tools to work together. This includes interoperable software that allows individual programs and tools to “talk” to each other and share information. Guided by global standards, developers and data scientists are ensuring that interoperable systems can equip health workers and global experts with a complete picture of health services and opportunities for improvement in individual communities and entire countries alike.

We believe 2019 will be a year of great consolidation in digital health. Digital systems that used to function independently, or as standalone products, are being integrated into a network of tools. Communities of practice like OpenHIE are bringing together software developers and health care practitioners to define how systems can exchange health information. Private-sector companies are being encouraged to adopt the same global standards used by open source software so that health information systems around the world can speak the same language. Active government participation in groups like the Health Data Collaborative is ensuring that new tools work together and meet country needs from day one. The connections between systems will bring greater connections between people, growing a strong, vibrant global digital health community.

5. The digital health revolution will truly go global

The right conditions and environment are crucial to harnessing the latest and greatest health innovation. Work on the broader country “enabling environment” is underway to strengthen the governance and thoughtful application of digital health tools. This includes boosting frontline health workers’ digital literacy as well as improving the capability of data analytics in global health. It is not enough to collect data. It must be translated into information that helps decision-makers and health workers do their jobs. What’s more, governments are creating policies, strategies, and investment plans that guide digital health at both the global and national levels.

Technology, policy, and health systems are aligning at the global level, drawing upon decades of insights and lessons to transform digital health worldwide. Underpinning this effort is a collaboration between PATH and the World Health Organization, which focuses on developing a global digital health strategy. This will enable investors, governments, and technology developers to rally behind a shared set of principles and approaches for digital health, opening up new cross-sector collaboration. Pieces of this puzzle that were once scattered across the globe are now being assembled into a picture of revolutionary digital health systems.