Earlier this year, I was invited to attend a gathering of minds at Wilton Park, a 16th century estate and think tank located in West Sussex with 15 acres of formal English gardens and surrounded by 6,000 acres of parkland. Of course, I said yes.
The week of Thanksgiving, I joined colleagues from around the globe to discuss the promise of digital health to address noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) in low- and middle-income countries.
The idea behind dialogues held at Wilton Park is to bring together diverse stakeholders from government, healthcare, private foundations, corporations, and the social benefit sector to bring their unique experiences, education, and perspectives to the table to not just further the conversation, but to spark innovative paths and solutions. We spent three days discussing how to employ digital health strategies and tools to prevent and control NCDs.
As we have discussed in these pages before, however, applying a digital solution in LMICs requires digital tools that are culturally relevant, in the language of the user, and in a method that they have the skills and time to actually use.
The digital world converged on LMICs in the last decade. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa had limited landline phones. Instead, they went straight to cellphones. These countries did not have the opportunity to catch up with technology methodically or in bite-sized increments, but rather experienced technology leapfrogging over their current systems and demanding adherence to a new reality. This can cause a serious disconnect for a country and its inhabitants.
As we address the issue of prevention of NCDs, we have to ask who we are designing for and how digital can augment, not hinder, current or longstanding systems that may not be technologically advanced but do work.
It is also important to be very clear: which part of LMICs are we talking about? Though we refer to low-income and middle-income countries under the same banner, the two can require different outreach strategies. What is the population of a particular country? What is realistic and viable given the different socioeconomic levels in each country?
AI apps that offer healthcare advice and guidance can be the right step forward for middle-income countries, but people in low-income countries (where they earn less than $5/day) often do not have the functional literacy to properly access and use digital health tools.
At Kati Collective, our lens is on the people that are hardest to reach. How much can and do countries spend on healthcare per month? For many countries, the true cost to provide thorough healthcare is not viable. And for individuals, being sick – and the ramifications on their families and ability to work – can lower their socioeconomic status. Treatment is expensive.
Our global conversation is about prevention, but in these countries, healthcare workers are focused on diagnosing and treating. We need a different kind of healthcare system: one in which national digital health care strategies and systems are implemented by knowledgeable healthcare ministries who understand their populations and allocate proper funding to educate healthcare workers and the general public about how to prevent NCDs.
I was honored to be invited to participate in this conversation. My own perspective was expanded, and I was able to share my knowledge and experience to expand that of others. As we end this year, I am grateful for all the colleagues and thought partners with whom we have listen, debated, learned, and worked with in 2019. Together we are identifying and working to solve the major healthcare and humanitarian issues of our age. Thank you.
Images: The Wilton Park grounds and meeting room. Photos by Kirsten Gagnaire.