As COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions hinder access to healthcare, people are flocking online to find medical providers, obtain diagnoses, and receive treatment. A recent Research Dive report projects that the global digital health industry will reach $1,045.8 million in revenue by 2027—a 24% jump from pre-pandemic projections. There is an opportunity now to leapfrog digital health in emerging markets, radically improving health access in areas that lack access to health clinicians but have broadband or internet.
There are key challenges that have slowed down the expansion of digital health in emerging markets, but the public and private sectors are beginning to coalesce around how to solve them. In particular, the private sector has a unique role to play in cultivating an enabling environment in which digital health can flourish. Through thoughtful pre-competitive partnerships and systems-level collaboration, companies across industries can work together in new ways to address barriers to digital access for improved health outcomes.
The challenge: Limited investment in digital infrastructure inhibits digital health solutions.
Digital infrastructure often suffers as a tragedy of commons: technological and connective infrastructure and policies are effectively public goods, and no one party is accountable for their development and management.
Governments underfund critical connectivity infrastructure and often overlook data and privacy regulations. Entrepreneurs and companies race to set up digital health solutions that are fragmented and incompatible with each other due to limited data oversight. Governments fail to unlock access to meaningful health data by lacking data standards. And poor regulatory oversight impedes progress or leads to privacy and security concerns that erode trust in the overarching digital health ecosystem.
A way forward: Pre-competitive partnerships allow companies to take collective action to advance digital infrastructure and drive systems-level change.
While one company alone may not have the ability to fill the gap in foundational technology and health infrastructure, a group of organizations may be far more capable.
Take MasterCard and Microsoft: they sell competing products and services related to the digital economy, but they are working together to support the creation of enabling digital environments that improve digital access for local communities while creating a better future for their businesses in these markets.
And in healthcare, for example, Medtronic and Novartis are partnering with the Ministry of Health in Kenya to improve health outcomes for Kenyans living with diabetes.
By pooling resources and partnering to solve shared challenges, companies and governments can work together to save lives and strengthen healthcare as a whole. As digital health accelerates, companies can use the industry’s momentum to work together to build an ecosystem for digital health in emerging markets that is accessible, safe, and trustworthy.
Below, we explore three ways that companies can address common challenges impeding digital health through pre-competitive and systems-level partnerships.
3 Ways Companies Can Engage in Pre-Competitive Partnerships to Unlock Digital Health in Emerging Markets
1. Co-invest in inclusive connectivity infrastructure to enable the broader health ecosystem.
A significant barrier to digital health access and innovation is limited mobile broadband and internet connectivity. As such, health-focused organizations should partner with each other and with tech giants like Microsoft, Google, and Facebook to co-invest in establishing or improving infrastructure for internet access and connectivity.
But it’s not just big tech working to address connectivity. Countless other smaller organizations who rely on internet access to power their business models are finding innovative ways to get consumers online. Startups like 1Doc3 are setting up telemedicine connections directly with users, while some rural regions are employing healthcare hubs to better serve consumers who are far from hospitals.
Connectivity creates an enabling environment for digital health and technology more broadly. Both tech and health organizations share an interest in this space and will benefit from innovative collaborations at local, regional, and global levels.
2. Forge partnerships that further patient privacy and data security for digital health.
Privacy is a fundamental patient right. As such, digital platforms must honor patient health data and take adequate measures to protect it from hacking and cyberattacks.
Digital regulation is nascent or absent in many emerging markets. Privacy International notes that in Africa, less than half of countries have adopted regulations to protect personal data. Health companies can and should work with consumer and civil society organizations to encourage governments to address how sensitive data are captured, transferred, and used.
Pre-competitive partnerships on privacy and data security regulation help ensure that patients are protected across platforms and regions—ultimately building trust in digital healthcare as a whole. In a recent report on Digital and AI in Health, Novartis and Microsoft argue that without such regulation, even the most promising solutions will fail to have an impact.
3. Take a systems approach to fighting health misinformation.
Misinformation is a critical threat to public health. Companies with digital health solutions must proactively address health misinformation—spanning from COVID-19 vaccine information to condom health safety—to build trustworthy and effective platforms. However, the challenge is greater than what any one organization can handle alone.
Governments, companies, and civil society must collaborate to ensure that patients and consumers have access to accurate information. Because so many sectors are involved, the challenge requires a systems approach that incorporates a wide range of stakeholders and perspectives to develop effective solutions.
In one of the most visible examples, the World Health Organization (WHO) partnered with more than 40 tech companies last February ahead of COVID-19 surges to mitigate the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus and the vaccine. While the collaboration has yielded tangible changes in how major social media platforms display and flag content, the problem is ongoing and evolving. The WHO is now involving sociologists, neuroscientists, and behavioral psychologists to explore how people receive and use information to make different choices.
In another example, the Bay Area Global Health Alliance has joined leading health organizations and companies to establish the Alliance for Advancing Health Online. Beyond pre-competitive collaboration, the Alliance draws expertise from a diverse set of actors in academia, global development, healthcare, and the tech sector to assess how to use behavioral science and social media to improve health in communities worldwide.
The Bottom Line Concerning Pre-Competitive Collaboration in Digital Health
There are key barriers that hinder the progress individual companies and other actors can make to advance digital health in emerging markets. But through pre-competitive partnerships, companies can work together to partner with governments, address key gaps, and co-invest in digital health ecosystems that are stronger, more resilient, and more accessible. This is a win for companies, patients, and communities alike.