Digital technology could be the key to improving healthcare delivery, according to research undertaken by the University of Edinburgh and the University of Cambridge.
The study shows that mobile and digital technology could be used to improve governance in the healthcare sector, leading to the fairer provision of medical treatment.
Published in the Journal of Global Health, the study was funded by the US Agency for International Development, through its Leadership, Management and Government Project.
The study is the first to focus specifically on the use of technology to improve governance in the healthcare sector.
Corruption, fraud and discrimination in the sector currently prevent fair and equal access to medical treatment. While these difficulties occur in most healthcare systems, they are particularly prevalent in low and middle income countries, as stated in the report.
The research indicates that innovations such as mobile apps may reduce significant barriers to equal healthcare access.
The report reviewed existing research on how digital technology can tackle problems in the healthcare sector, concluding that it could improve transparency and accountability within medical institutions. Examples include the use of mobile technology in data collection, allowing for increased and improved information regarding governance.
Mobile apps could be used to enable healthcare workers to report on practices within their institutions. Researchers may also crowdsource data by engaging with citizens through their mobile phones, and encouraging them to report incidents such as stock shortages or discrimination.
The study highlights how citizens could be enabled to verify that medication is genuine using their mobile phones, while electronic billing may reduce informal payments or bribery.
Additionally, problems such as theft could be tackled by increased digitisation, by allowing for automated tracking of hospital stocks. This could also help to verify that patients receive medical attention, by recording health care visits using biometric fingerprint technology.
On the other side of the counter, mobile phone payment services may be used to ensure that healthcare workers receive their full salaries on time.
The report also highlighted that increased social media use may also play a role in creating stronger governance in healthcare by creating a more accessible method for the public to report incidences of bribery or discrimination.
It may also help facilitate public campaigns to raise awareness about corruption in the healthcare sector, and subsequently apply pressure for change on governments.
Dr Claudia Pagliari, a member of the University of Edinburgh’s Global Health Academy and Usher Institute of Population Health and Informatics, and a co-author of the study, said in a press release: “While all countries are affected by these problems to some extent, the health sector in low and middle-income regions has been particularly susceptible. As digital technologies become more widely available there are real opportunities to make a difference.”
The study did identify factors which may limit the effectiveness of technology in improving governance.
For example, in many developing countries, there are lower rates of mobile phone use and internet access amongst marginalised groups. This may reduce engagement with citizens who are the most affected by unequal healthcare access.
Isaac Holeman, a Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School and a co-founder of the non-profit MedicMobile, as well as a co-author, said in a statement to The Student: “To be effective these technologies need to be designed with a sound understanding of the lived experiences of users and accompanied by the right mechanisms for turning digital insights into action.”
Image: Alex Proimos