Dr. Angelo de Guzman is responsible for the health of 28,000 people on the Dinagat Islands in the Philippines, 700 miles southeast of Manila, the capital. This is not a small feat given the size and isolation of this population, and unfortunately Dr. Guzman’s case is not unique: doctors all over the developing world are trying to care for large rural populations without access to proper medical resources nor the specialized knowledge that they might need to cover all situations. To cope, doctors and health programs worldwide are innovating in the use of information technology to fill these gaps. Dr. Guzman is fortunate to be able to make use of the BuddyWorks program which lets him access the opinion of specialists in cities hundreds of miles away through text messages (SMS) when dealing with complicated cases. This solution saves money, time and lives. (Click here to see Dr. Guzman about treating a mystery illness with BuddyWorks)
But this is just one way that eHealth (the use of information technology for health) is improving the quality, affordability, and accessibility of care in low- and middle-income countries. Innovators are testing innumerable eHealth solutions that use technologies, ranging from basic cell-phones to fingerprint scanners, to expand access to care, manage data, help patients pay for services, and much more.
In response to this explosion of activity, the Results for Development Institute (R4D) used the CHMI programs database to carry out a first-of-its-kind study detailing how eHealth is being used to improve the quality, accessibility, and affordability of privately delivered health care for the poor in developing countries. “E-Health in low- and middle-income countries: findings from the Center for Health Market Innovations,” published in today’s edition of The Bulletin of the World Health Organization, finds that information technology is a fundamental component of the model for 176 of 657 health programs in the study sample. Although there has been much interest in recent years in how specific technologies can improve health in the developing world, this is the first study to use a large sample size of health programs to assess the extent to which eHealth is proliferating in low- and middle-income countries and to determine how it is used to improve private-sector care.
The study’s findings identify options for program managers, funders, and policy makers to more effectively utilize information technologies to make good quality health care more affordable and accessible in developing countries. It highlights six ways technology is being used:
- Extending geographical access to overcome distance between physicians and patients,
- Facilitating communications between health workers and patients,
- Improving diagnosis and treatment for health workers,
- Improving data management
- Streamlining financial transactions, and
- Mitigating fraud and abuse
Authors also find that despite the heightened focus around the use of text messages for health, voice and software applications are more frequently used. In addition, programs launched before recent advances in information technologies are not rapidly adopting new technologies when compared to newer programs with technology built in from the start. The study also finds that about half of programs using eHealth received their primary funding from donors. This heavy reliance on donor funding could jeopardize their long-term success.
“We have found that various types of information technologies are being employed by private organizations to address key health system challenges,” said Gina Lagomarsino, a Managing Director at R4D. “For successful implementation it is critically important that more sustainable sources of funding, greater support for the adoption of new technologies and better ways of evaluating impact are found.”
Read the full study here.