“Four billion people on the planet have no meaningful access to healthcare,” explains Dr. Gregory Moore, a top Microsoft executive working on software systems for health. But then he adds: “There is no way we can train enough doctors and nurses.”
Moore, like many other experts, is convinced digital health systems and tools can provide an alternative to traditional care and, in theory, help all those people stay healthier and get treatment when necessary. But many experts in digital health see a general failure of the global system to quickly enough seize the opportunities presented by new tools.
That was the consensus at a high-level panel Techonomy moderated in Davos in partnership with technology services firm Wipro, “Will Data and Digital Finally Transform Global Health?” Moore was a panelist.
“Healthcare is about a decade behind other sectors,” said Francesca Colombo, who heads efforts on health for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of the world’s 36 wealthiest countries. “In healthcare, investment in digital averages about one-quarter what it is in other industries.” Added Jeroen Tas, chief innovation and strategy officer at healthtech company Philips: “Spending on healthcare is still 99% bricks and mortar. It’s not digitized.” Tas draws a stark contrast to an industry he used to work in—financial services: “Most people have banked electronically for what, twenty years?”
But all the panelists were veritably ebullient at the range of potential ways we could better deploy healthcare digitally, especially in poorer countries. Says Microsoft’s Moore: “The vision is that in a cloud-connected world, we can put the power into the hands of a community care worker, who becomes the most knowledgeable person in a village. That model can scale.”
Philips developed an obstetrical ultrasound unit integrated into a lightweight backpack, and has already deployed it in Indonesia, Congo, and India, said Tas. There will never be enough obstetricians to serve such vast populations. Indonesia, for example, has only about 300 for 270 million people.
But with the portable unit, a traveling midwife scans a pregnant mother. The image gets automatically uploaded to the cloud. Artificial intelligence software determines most images are unremarkable. Then remote obstetricians review suspect images and instruct the midwife when urgent action is required.
Rajan Kohli, who heads Wipro Digital, noted the great progress some groups in developing countries are already making. An Indian hospital called Arvind Eyecare, which operates on large numbers of patients, recently partnered with Google, sending it photos of patients and their diagnosis. The aim is to let a photo determine whether a patient needs to come in for an eye operation. “Now they are able to analyze that with 95% accuracy,” Kohli marveled.
In developing countries, a hospital can be hours away by bus or even require days of walking. The issue many face, when health issues arise, is whether or not to take a lengthy and costly journey. Such systems can help immeasurably.
The happy news is that digital healthcare will likely move fastest where it is most needed. Says OECD’s Colombo: “Low income countries can skip generations of reforms.” Philips’ Tas, for his part, says “I know for certain it will happen first in China. It will follow the same pattern as retail. They’re way ahead with online retailing because the stores were just not there.”
Colombo is deeply frustrated with progress in most affluent countries. “We are pushing governments. But they are slow.” She says very few countries have reckoned with ways to give patients confidence their digital health data is properly protected. That will be a major roadblock to progress, unless it’s solved, agreed all.
The U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals loom in the background, since improved global health is central to these planetary goals for 2030. The world needs vastly more focus on this critical target.