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Digital health in 2020

Human health has improved exponentially in the last decade primarily due to unbelievable advances in digital technology. Today, we have more health information – and misinformation – at our fingertips than any generation in the history of humankind. The global concept of providing universal health coverage is a tremendous impetus to drive growth in deployment of digital technologies.

Artificial intelligence is being used by Ayushman Bharat to make available solutions to humungous problems covering 500 million. Machine learning is helping us to predict outbreaks and optimize health services. Contact, continuous, financial, universal, and effective coverage for millions requires digital technology. Factors driving growth include accountability, responsibility, demand, quality and affordability, and product. Today, prioritized digital health interventions can be made accessible via mobile devices. These include birth, death notification via mobile devices, stock notification and commodity management, telemedicine, digital tracking of patients’ health status and services, health worker decision-support, and provision of training and educational content to health workers via mobile devices. mHealth is particularly relevant in a low-resource setting. Poor management, insufficient training, infrastructural limitations, and poor access to equipment and supplies will be major challenges.

The complexity of the problem itself provides new business opportunities for technology providers in healthcare. Developing culture-sensitive language-specific health content in a digital format, providing information that is aligned with recommended health practices or validated health content, would be a major business opportunity. There cannot be a bigger business opportunity than identifying and making available hundreds of digital applications, using ICT systems and communication channels that facilitate delivery of myriads of digital interventions and health content for 1.3 billion people. Leadership and governance, strategy, and investment are the buzz words. Developing future-ready interoperable standards, services, and applications is a huge opportunity. India can be used as a test field, and a ready-to-go to market, customized product can be introduced almost anywhere globally.

Professional training in health informatics is necessary to break the fear of technology and the resistance to change. A multi-stakeholder, national-level eHealth authority to provide leadership and direction; the adoption of a eHealth policy to define the vision and action required; the development of a funding framework and mechanisms to develop ICT infrastructure for provision of eHealth services; is mandatory at a national level. Securing public and professional confidence in information-governance arrangements, and privacy and confidentiality measures in holding and processing sensitive health information electronically, needs to be addressed.

The road ahead

Digital health is an all-encompassing term, which includes information and communication technology, telehealth, eHealth, mHealth, artificial intelligence, etc. There is no limit for deployment of digital health. It can be used by every single stakeholder in the healthcare ecosystem. The very definition of health is changing. It is no longer just physical, mental, and social wellbeing and absence of disease. It is a resource for living a full and happy life. Factors for good health include genetics, the environment, relationships, and most important appropriate use of digital technology. We are in a stage of transition. All transition periods offer great opportunities. We should, however, never ever forget that a fool with a tool is still a fool. We should not be swayed by the hype and the pressure exerted by MNCs. Today, there is a very real danger of solutions being developed first and then searching for problems so that they can be used. Technology is a means to an end, and not an end by itself. I am glad that I still belong to the BC generation – a medical doctor who still listens to a patient, understands what the family wants, and then decides if digital technology is to be used – intervenes – not become a slave of tens of thousands of data points made available through wearable technology!

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