There are few gifts more precious than the gift of health. There are few rights more fundamental than the right to consistent, high-quality healthcare. It is, indeed, a right on which all other basic human rights depend.
Unfortunately, social inequities most often manifest first and most harmfully at the level of human health. Global disparities in access to basic nutrition, life-saving medications, and effective preventative, diagnostic, and therapeutic tools have for too long served to manifest profound systemic social injustices, the stark and seemingly insuperable divisions between the haves and the have-nots.
Technology, however, is increasingly demonstrating its power to bridge these divides. Thanks to innovation, healthcare providers can now care for patients in some of the most inaccessible regions of the world through mobile technology. Technological innovations are also enabling the world’s poorest populations to address root causes — the core challenges that give rise to health disparities in the first place — such as food insecurity, malnutrition, joblessness, and homelessness.
It is probably no surprise that one of the most significant contributors to global health disparities is the pervasiveness of global economic disparities. According to recent estimates, African countries spend, on average, around $200 per person for healthcare per year. This contrasts with roughly $9,000 in annual per capita healthcare expenditures in the United States.
And yet, when it comes to global health, it appears that the old adage is true: you have to spend money to make money. In other words, the lack of parity in per capita healthcare expenditures has created a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty and low economic productivity.
Poor health leads to economic inefficiency, low wages, and rampant underemployment and unemployment. As the population sickens, GDPs remain stagnant, or even shrink. Communities fail to thrive. And the money, technology, and manpower needed to provide adequate healthcare to impoverished communities continue to come up short.
Digital technologies, however, could be a promising contribution to help stop, or at least to slow, this slide. Increasingly, low-cost digital solutions are being used to track childhood immunizations in some of the world’s poorest and most inaccessible regions.
The digital realm could also underpin an affordable strategy for containing the spread of infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, through so-called “immunity passports.” The UK, for example, is testing a program called Operation Moonshot to conduct widespread immunity testing and to digitally document and track individuals identified as having protective antibodies against the disease.
Additionally, the digital realm supports patient education and disease prevention by facilitating online access to healthcare providers and the most up-to-date medical information.
A Hospital on Your Phone?
While digital technologies are enhancing patients’ access to vital health information and remote care, perhaps the most exciting innovations are in the tools currently under development. Every day, new apps and external devices are being developed to transform our ubiquitous mobile devices into powerful medical screening, monitoring, and diagnostic tools.
For example, images of biopsied tissue can be taken by cellphone and sent securely to pathologists and physicians hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Likewise, with the addition of a small, low-cost Vscan device, healthcare providers in even the most inaccessible and impoverished areas of the world can turn their laptops into medical ultrasound machines.
It is now even possible to receive a quick and highly accurate oral health screening using a smartphone camera. This is not only a cosmetic benefit, but can be a profoundly important preventative and diagnostic tool. Dentists are able to use such examinations to detect oral cancers or to diagnose periodontal disease or tooth infections that can quickly spiral into sepsis or even potentially lethal cardiac complications.
An Increasing Standard of Living
As we’ve seen, global health disparities aren’t only about a lack of technology, money, or healthcare providers in some of the world’s most vulnerable areas. A dearth of sustainable employment also contributes to health inequalities. This lack of high quality work results not only in poor quality of care, but also to food insecurity and unhealthy living conditions.
However, technology is helping to overcome employment barriers around the world. Even in the most highly developed economies, for example, significant economic inequities have been revealed by the COVID pandemic, with Black and Brown communities disproportionately affected by the virus due in part to the higher number of low-wage “essential workers” in these communities.
For some members of these marginalized communities, however, the significant threat of the virus has necessitated a profound economic shift. For instance, while not providing, perhaps, the stability of a traditional job, a “side hustle” allows aspiring entrepreneurs to use the devices they already own to take up freelance work. In essence, with a bit of ingenuity, technology enables freelancers to start their own online businesses with very little overhead.
In developing countries, such opportunities may be even more significant. In fact, recent estimates suggest that 58 million new jobs will be created as a result of technological innovation and that such innovations will be an important catalyst for the growth of the middle class in developing countries.
Importantly, as infrastructure works to catch up with the economic development of these countries, mobile technologies will work to bridge the gap and sustain and advance productivity. In areas where power outages are frequent, for example, portable chargers can provide a reliable and low-cost option to keep workers online, connected, and productive.
The result could be an improved standard of living and higher national and personal incomes that contribute to overall better health and better healthcare.
Global health inequities are real and all too devastating for those suffering under the weight of them. Technological innovation, however, is a promising solution for what once seemed to be an impossible problem. Thanks to technology, communities around the world are enjoying increasing access to consistent, high-quality, and affordable care, no matter where in the world they may be.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.