Digital Health Takes Center Stage: How Governments Can Capitalize on Technology During the COVID-19 Pandemic

An Interview with Ann Aerts, Head of the Novartis Foundation

As COVID-19 sweeps across the globe and inundates health systems, governments face ongoing pressure to respond swiftly to stop the spread of the virus. While this public health crisis revealed the fragility of many health systems and highlighted weaknesses in governance structures, COVID-19 also shed light on the transformative power of digital health tools. In fact, new opportunities emerged for governments to reshape investment in their digital health infrastructure.

So why has this specific health crisis been a wakeup call for governments on the power of digital? According to Ann Aerts, Head of the Novartis Foundation, it is because this is the first epidemic response that is fully data driven. “COVID has catapulted us into a digital world,” she explains, “and has also brought digital health to the forefront of health and care delivery; even the most skeptical have been convinced that the benefits of virtual care largely outweigh the risks of having in person consultations during the pandemic.” Now more than ever, Ann is seeing a shift in mindset within governments, recognizing the power of rapid access to digital data and its potential to inform better decision-making, health planning, and more appropriate allocation of resources.

While this shift in mindset is critical, for many governments, there remains a gap between acknowledging the power of digital solutions and tapping into their potential to improve health outcomes. COVID-19 made this painstakingly clear – as many governments still rely on paper-based systems for data collection, and a lack of digital literacy remains commonplace – it is extremely challenging for some to meet the digital demands of this crisis.

That is where the Novartis Foundation comes in. As an organization that spent the last decade supporting the adoption and implementation of digital tools, they have been thinking critically about the core components that truly enable a government to increase their health systems readiness to adopt digital and AI-driven solutions. In a recent report developed by the Broadband Commission Working Group on Digital and AI in Health; the Novartis Foundation, Microsoft and other partners provided a roadmap for governments to do just that. According to Ann, it ultimately boils down to having a strong Informational Communication Technology (ICT) national framework, intersectoral collaboration, and visionary leadership. “Health is really a political choice”, says Ann, “it is an opportunity to make digital and AI an essential part of every health system, just as essential as hospital beds are.”

The report highlights learnings from countries around the world, showcases their innovative AI-driven solutions, and guides governments on where to invest resources to transform their health systems and reap the benefits of digital and AI. It goes on to highlight how technological innovation skyrocketed during the pandemic, and spotlights new tools hitting the market. The scope of innovations is expansive – from AI-enabled symptom checker chatbots to systems that leverage real-time big data to produce COVID-19 risk maps – and the reach is far, impacting health and care delivery, and outcomes at all corners of the world.

The Novartis Foundation believes this report is one way to better equip governments with the steps they should take to allow their digital health systems to deliver health and care in the digital era. Transforming these systems will allow for better reaction, not only to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, but for future outbreak response preparedness. Ultimately, Ann notes, “this COVID crisis highlights the critical role health authorities play to make the right policy and investment choices.”

Low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), given their dual disease burdens, the significant shortage of skilled health professionals and rapid urbanization, likely have the most to gain from AI in health. They also have much to lose; if their governments fail to take the necessary steps to strengthen their data strategies and digital infrastructure, and improve the digital skills of their people, they risk missing key opportunities to tap into impactful digital solutions. 

As the Novartis Foundation continues to promote and share the report findings, they are committed to finding other ways to highlight the role of digital in the COVID-19 pandemic. In partnership with the Harvard Global Health Institute, they hosted an 8-part webinar series that brought together experts from low resource settings to share how they leveraged digital in the fight against COVID-19, and the hurdles faced along the way. Ultimately, the message is simple: “countries need to invest in data and the use of data if they want to improve their populations’ health,” says Ann.