Digital health has the power and potential to unlock health services for any patient with access to a cell phone.
With global expansion in mobile phone use and Internet connectivity, digital health—i.e., the application of information and communications technology (ICT) to health services—is playing a growing role in improving the efficiency and efficacy of health systems and delivery models in emerging markets.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated the rise of digital health: Out of necessity, COVID-19 essentially erased the healthcare field’s hesitancy to tap telemedicine to offer remote care, and it has demonstrated patients’ receptivity to digital treatment. Now that the floodgates are open, the role of digital health is poised to grow long after the pandemic has subsided. So for episode six of our Inclusive Innovation Exchange, we invited three global health entrepreneurs to reflect on their experiences launching digital health enterprises in emerging markets:
- Caitlin Dolkart, Co-founder & CEO, RESCUE.CO. Rescue.co is the largest network of Kenya’s first responders. Its digital health platform quickly connects subscribers across Kenya with emergency responders via a tracking and dispatch system.
- Dr. Mohamed Aburawi, Founder, SPEETAR. Speetar works to make quality healthcare more accessible in the Middle East and North Africa. It leverages telemedicine and cloud-based electronic health records technology to connect patients with cultural- and language-matched medical specialists, thereby breaking down the economic, social, and geographic barriers that limit patient choice.
- Sergio Medina, Founder, RISE. RISE creates technology for aid workers that increases efficiency and transparency in emergency settings, helping more refugee children access essential services. Now, Medina is building a solution to track COVID-19 inoculations and create digital health identities for vulnerable populations.
Watch the webinar recording here to get full insights from the three speakers. Below, we share their insights on digital health and its long-term implications for healthcare worldwide:
3 Ways Digital Health Is Expanding Access to Care
1. Technology can accelerate the future of healthcare, through improved efficiency and scale
Reflecting on global healthcare access, Aburawi quoted famous author William Gibson: “the future’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” He cited the incredible innovations in surgery and medications he witnessed in Boston that aren’t yet offered in emerging markets. “Tech offers that solution,” he said.
“It’s the element that’s going to help the African continent...leapfrog to the future of healthcare.”
How will it do this? For one thing, smart applications of digital technology can maximize the existing potential of health systems in emerging markets. As a case in point, Dolkart’s team used digital technology in Nairobi to build on what already existed: “The conversation is always around the lack of physicians and nurses," she said. "We turned that on its head: what resources do exist and how do we maximize them?” For example, emergency department equipment varies widely in Kenya from hospital to hospital: some health centers have X-rays or CT scanners, while others can perform emergency cesarean sections.
Rescue.co uses its platform to digitally catalog which services are provided at each location, so that dispatchers can quickly and easily direct ambulances to the hospitals and facilities equipped to provide the needed care. Further, Rescue.co recognized two major barriers to access: patients struggled to negotiate payment with ambulance companies and to pay at the point of care. Through Rescue.co’s subscription model, patients and ambulance companies no longer need to negotiate the price. The dispatcher and ambulance can instead focus on getting the patient to the best clinical care facility.
And when COVID-19 hit Libya, Aburawi noted the incredible mobilization and catalyzation of digital health solutions. His company, Speetar, experienced massive growth—600 percent month-over-month in the second quarter of 2020—which continues as they scale. He argued that digital health is a critical tool to rapidly scale health services: “It has been incredible and mind-blowing. I think digital health is here to stay,” he said.
2. Technology doesn’t replace collaboration.
When it comes to digital health, human relationships are key. Dolkart noted that her company is mainly a facilitator, using technology as a conduit for a better functioning system. “We don’t operate a single ambulance ourselves.” They rely on clinics, physicians, ambulance companies and drivers, and many others to maintain a functioning system. “Everything we do is based on partnerships. Without them, we wouldn’t exist as a business.”
And, indeed, cross-sector partnerships have been critical to Rescue.co’s growth model: Dolkart established her company in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, then expanded to more cities as the Rescue.co service gained popularity. Her team got good at selling in urban contexts, but more than half of the country lives in rural and peri-urban areas. To scale to new populations, Rescue.co partners with government, NGOs, and donors to subsidize and extend its service to lower-income families in less populated areas.
On the topic of partnership, Aburawi pointed out that healthcare is unique: “you can’t just launch an application or service and operate in a silo. You need partners locally or globally from a regulation and funding perspective.” Meanwhile, patients need to trust you with more than their data—they also need to trust you with their life. He stressed the importance of mutually beneficial relationships and shared an example of how Speetar partnered with the Libyan government. “We helped them broaden their reach during COVID and provided data that helped them with limited resources," he said. It’s now a template for how the company is scaling beyond Libya.
3. Take advantage of technology—but keep the human element front and center.
Medina recounted an experience trying to assist terrified children at the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. How did his team finally gain their trust?
“We kept showing up. Go slow. Don’t make it transactional," he said.
He advised leaning into personal, human connections to put people at ease, and recommended the design research field for a wonderful primer on methods for establishing trust.
Medina also noted the importance of treating patients as consumers (as opposed to beneficiaries)—thereby flipping the script for how care is delivered. In refugee camps, his RISE team views teachers and kids as consumers and uses their voices to determine how best to shape digital solutions and distribution mechanisms.
Dolkart also emphasized the importance of keeping humanity front and center. “[At Rescue.co], we’re constantly looking at how to take away what would be better served by tech, [while still] keeping humans at the center of what we do,” she said. The mix of technology versus human interaction “is always changing, too, as tech becomes more pervasive,” she added.
As the role of technology in health expands, all three founders stressed that it is simply a tool for helping people. “Try to put technology in second place to what you’re hoping and trying to achieve,” Medina said. “We can get caught up in artificial intelligence, mapping, optimization equations, but really… you’re just using it as a way to reach your vision.”