In many emerging markets, reliable data on healthcare systems is limited or nonexistent. This makes it difficult to address urgent healthcare challenges in many countries. But a growing number of tech entrepreneurs and public health activists are finding ways to fill the data gaps.
There are many gaps to address. Such healthcare systems and supply chains are not typically powered by modern IT systems. Large quantities of health data end up in paper records that are lost or forgotten. Undocumented cash transactions at hospitals and pharmacies are common—and sometimes preferred by those seeking to avoid regulations or taxes.
“Healthcare professionals are flying blind in many emerging markets,” says Pablo Kommisar, Managing Partner at Xcellen, a consulting firm that advises Asian healthcare companies on sales force optimization. “These are also high-potential markets for healthcare organizations, but the lack of good data prevents them from operating efficiently.”
Yet the situation is improving as healthcare systems everywhere get more digitized. And as smartphones and other connected devices proliferate, fertile new sources of data are emerging. Social media activity and search engine records, for instance, can give indications on people’s health. Travel records can show where they have been—and what diseases they may have encountered along the way.
Digital health startups are contributing as well. Online health information portals, disease management apps, telemedicine services, consumer-health wearables vendors, and countless other tech companies are gaining traction wherever there’s a signal. These companies not only extend the reach and quality of healthcare services in emerging markets, but also generate huge quantities of data.
“Many up-and-coming health tech companies understand that data is key,” says Julien de Salaberry, Chief Innovation Officer at The Propell Group, a Singapore-based investment and advisory firm for health tech startups in Asia.
mClinica is one company that sees health data collection as a path to value creation. It partners with pharmacies and clinics in emerging markets to gather real-time data on medicine sales, physician prescribing habits, patient demographics, and epidemiological trends. As mClinica’s director of new markets, I’m helping to develop these efforts in Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia—four countries with fast-changing but opaque healthcare markets.
Public health organizations and academic institutions are also working to leverage the power of big data for emerging markets healthcare. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), which was recently profiled in a compelling new book called Epic Measures, is one of the most impactful.
IHME is best known for its Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, a monumental initiative to systematically analyze the causes of disease and death in all countries. Led by Chris Murray, a leading figure in global health, the study guides decision makers in government, donor institutions, and the private sector. It provides them a mechanism for identifying public health problems and designing interventions with maximum impact.
To calculate the burden of disease in emerging markets where there is limited health data, IHME and its global network of researchers routinely use obscure datasets and creative analytic approaches. Air pollution, for instance, is a major cause of respiratory disease and other health problems. It’s not well measured in many countries, so the GBD researchers came up with global estimates by running analyses on satellite images.
“We face some pretty big data gaps in global health,” says Murray, “but analytic methods are advancing so quickly that we can now do disease mapping at a really local level, and forecast the burden of disease decades into the future.”
IHME has many other initiatives in global health research, including programs to measure vaccine efficacy and tobacco control. It operates a Global Health Data Exchange that enables health professionals to share and discover new sources of data for their research. Based at the University of Washington, it also offers courses, fellowships, and academic prizes.
Organizations like IHME are working intensively to leverage the power of big data for public health, but the data is still small in many emerging markets. Yet as healthcare systems in even the poorest countries get digitized, the opportunities for improving healthcare are tremendous.
Will Greene is a digital health entrepreneur and researcher based in Vietnam. You can find him on LinkedIn.