“Digital health” refers to the use of information and communication technology to achieve health goals. This includes exchanging health information with patients via mobile phones; using mobile technology to collect epidemiological and other data for better decision making; helping frontline health workers access information, learn skills, and make more accurate diagnoses; and informing policymakers of trends and alerts in real time.
Digital health solutions strengthen disease-focused programs, improve access to quality health services, help health systems function better, and allow health professionals to work more effectively. For example, Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development — a global call for groundbreaking, scalable solutions to infant and maternal mortality around the time of birth — has supported 115 innovative tools and approaches since 2011, addressing the 303,000 maternal deaths, 2.7 million neonatal deaths, and 2.6 million stillbirths that occur each year.
The digital health revolution builds on increased access to mobile phones, smartphones, and mobile Internet services worldwide. Digital health solutions can reach millions in every community. For example, South Africa’s MomConnect project communicates with pregnant women and new mothers via text messages, voice recordings, and WhatsApp to help them care for themselves and their children, as well as to encourage them to seek health services when needed.
Digital health helps frontline health workers educate themselves about lifesaving diagnoses and treatment, which is critical in rural and hard-to-reach areas where little training or support is available. Programs such as the mPowering Frontline Health Workers partnership use text messages, mobile apps, video content, and other forms of mobile learning to help frontline health workers gain new information and maintain current skills. These materials can even be used without an Internet connection.
Digital health already plays an important role in global health security. Community health workers are using mobile tools to collect health data in their communities and to automatically alert authorities of potential outbreaks. Digital health solutions also support track-and-trace efforts to help contain outbreaks within their areas of origin.
Investments in digital health benefit multiple disease-specific programs and can increase the range and impact of existing work in some of the world’s hardest-to-reach areas. When digital solutions follow the Principles for Development and are built using open source code and openly licensed content, they can be expanded upon and adapted to new countries, health contexts, and technologies. For example, DHIS2, an open source solution for tracking health indicators, is the world’s largest health information platform, used in 67 LMICs and covering an estimated 30% of the world’s population.
The benefits of digital health applications can be magnified with a strategic shift in digital health infrastructure investments. The global health community and U.S. global health programs should move away from the current practice of single-application solutions toward a more strategic approach that aligns with both current country priorities and long-term goals. By better coordinating digital health programming, global health stakeholders can reduce duplicate efforts and ensure that digital solutions are more effective in increasing all health outcomes.