Unlocking power and promise of digital health for Africa

May 24, 2017 by PATH

African leaders are taking a bold step that could save billions of dollars and help citizens access services and tools to improve health.

Paper records will eventually be a thing of the past as countries across Africa implement national digital health strategies. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

Paper records will eventually be a thing of the past as countries across Africa implement national digital health strategies. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

Technology holds incredible promise for health: It can yield data to help stamp out emerging epidemics before they reach crisis level; make health care providers and services accessible to people in hard-to-reach places; and get us closer than ever to universal health coverage. It can also save money—more than US $200 billion by 2030 in Africa alone.

But technology can’t do these things on its own. To live up to its promise, digital technology needs to be paired with solid strategies custom-designed to align with countries’ priorities, needs, and resources.

African leaders who gathered at the African Ministerial Dialogue on Digital Health Leadership at the 2017 World Health Assembly* affirmed their commitment to develop and implement exactly these types of robust national strategies that pair technology with solid strategies. This strategic foundation—and coordinated buy-in from all investors and partners working in the country—will be the foundation for an African network of digital health systems.

The problem with pilots

While tech solutions for health are flourishing everywhere, the global digital health landscape has been mired in “pilotitis”—a collision of well-intentioned digital health pilot projects that rarely reach scale and fail to ladder up to a national strategy. In its 2017 report, “Digital Health: A call for Government Leadership and Cooperation between ICT and Health,” the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development calls national digital health strategies essential to overcoming this challenge.

A national digital health strategy like the one proposed by African leaders outlines a country’s unique digital health priorities, as well as the various regulations, policies, and systems needed to realize them. It’s a blueprint for an integrated digital health system that connects everything from patient electronic health records to mobile phone health applications, resulting in real-time, high-quality data that can be used to improve health for all.

A senior representative speaking on behalf of Dr. Oly Ilunga Kalunga, Honorable Minister of Public Health from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), reinforced the urgency of developing and implementing digital health strategies: “We’ve faced eight Ebola epidemics in the DRC, and we’ve used digital tools from our strategy in responding to the last two,” he said. “They allow us to get real-time data from where the epidemic is actually happening, two times a day, every day.” This data guides decisions that have helped identify risks, deploy resources, and contain outbreaks.

“Digital health improves service delivery and clinical outcomes, and we know that cannot happen if we don’t look at the data.”
— Dr. Patrick Ndimubanzi, Honorable Minister of State, Public Health and Primary Health Care, Rwanda

Three tips for success

Here are three important ways national leaders, health officials, NGOs, and other stakeholders can help ensure the success of national digital health strategies:

  1. Align activities and investments behind a country’s national digital health strategy

63% of countries that responded to the 2015 World Health Organization’s eHealth survey reported that they have developed eHealth strategies. During the African Ministerial Dialogue, Dr. Awa Marie Coll Seck, Honorable Minister of Health for Senegal, reminded the attendees that successful implementation of a national digital health strategy depends on all stakeholders aligning to it.

In practice, this means honoring the digital health priorities laid forth by a country. If a country prioritizes investments in X, donor organizations shouldn’t decide instead to invest in Y.

2. Coordinate, coordinate, coordinate

The African Ministerial Dialogue revealed that too often, partners who invest in digital health technologies in countries aren’t coordinating effectively. Often, each organization funds its own new digital mobile application instead of coordinating their investments into scalable solutions that have already been proven to work.

3. Build local capacity

Strong digital health systems depend on local digital technology developers, a digitally trained health workforce, and tech literate leaders. By building and fostering technical capacity for digital innovation across Africa, we ensure that decision-makers at all levels have the information and technical know-how needed to meet their goals for improved health outcomes.

We're building a global support system for digital health

Digital Square responds to these three objectives. Launched in October 2016, the initiative is a partnership between PATH, the United States Agency for International Development, and more than 40 collaborating partners and donors. It focuses on coordinating investments in proven digital technologies that can be reused and adapted by multiple countries.

It also creates the next generation of African technology developers and tech-savvy leaders by supporting peer networks within countries and regions.

A key component of this work is the creation of an African Alliance of Digital Health Networks, which will serve as secretariat to coordinate existing digital health networks across the continent. Its goal is to ensure that African countries have the best and most appropriate support they need to develop strong digital health systems. The Alliance has already received commitments from donors and supporters. PATH is planning an exciting series of events and meetings over the next six months to build momentum for the Alliance, leading up to a formal launch event in Africa in early 2018.

*PATH, the Novartis Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored the African Ministerial Dialogue on Digital Health Leadership on May 22, 2017. The event was co-hosted by Professor Isaac Folorunso Adewole (Honorable Minister of Health, Nigeria), Dr. Patrick Ndimubanzi (Honorable Minister of State, Public Health, and Primary Health Care, Rwanda), and Professor Awa Marie Coll Seck (Honorable Minister of Health, Senegal).