In Focus – Boldly Growing: A New Era of Digital Health

February 28, 2022

By Darlene Irby, Executive Director of Digital Health, Pathfinder International

In an era of digital innovations, these trends will be changing how we think of global health – and how we ensure its viability for the future

A central dispatcher in rural Tanzania ensures pregnant women are ‘mobile mamas’ when they go into labor, getting them to the closest health center through a network of community drivers. Virtual reality headsets teach young couples in Bihar State, India, about reproductive norms through interactive dialogues. And analytics measure the impact of these initiatives: how many people they reach and how many lives they save. 

Participants watch a virtual reality video on sexual and reproductive health in Bihar, India, as part of Pathfinder’s Youth Voices for Agency and Access program (YUVAA). Credit: Pathfinder India

These innovations, led by Pathfinder International, are part of a digital transformation that is taking place across global health. We are often said to be living through a Fourth Industrial Revolution, one marked by exponential growth in technological advancements. But this exponential growth is unevenly distributed, reaching some users and missing others, while coupled with ever-growing demand.

As the Executive Director of Digital Health at Pathfinder International, it is my job to ensure that our use of digital technology isn’t just cutting-edge, but that it follows fundamental underpinnings that ensure equity and support gender-transformative, rights-based, people-centered approaches. The process of digital growth must be locally driven, integrated with existing systems, and it must, more than anything, be sustainable

What does this look like, in practice? 

First, technologies must be based on what’s already in use. We should have a ‘recycle and upcycle’ mentality that is led by teams in the geographies where the technology is being deployed, meeting the needs of countries, health systems, and health work forces where they are.  

Second, we need to break down silos by integrating our work across sectors. If we are collecting health clients’ data, we should ask if we can use that same platform for other arenas, like education or financial inclusion.

Third, and most importantly, whatever is created must be sustainable. When technology is institutionalized by nongovernmental organizations, local private enterprises, and governments, it is far more likely to be embedded into local policies and practices in the long-term. 

Finally, health does not exist in a bubble, and nor should the technology we use. If we are collecting data on HIV, we need underlying standards and policies on storing data. If we have developed an integration only accessible by smart phone, we need to understand how many members of the community have access to that technology. 

We must recognize that, at times, deploying technology is the easy part, but that technology alone is no panacea—it’s the ecosystems that surround, and bolster, our technology that will allow digital health innovation to support the health needs of our global community. The challenge is building the infrastructure to ensure that laws, policies, and capacity support growth—because if we do, we will not only be working at the cutting edge of technology, we will also be saving lives.