Nowadays the phrase digital transformation sparks either enthusiasm or cynicism, and either reaction can be backed by well-known successes or failures. In truth, by digital transformation we don’t just mean technology, but rather something much more complex: our ability to transform processes and work cultures in a way that truly adds value to the technology we offer for the members of our communities.
A New Way to Gather Information
Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is well behind the curve when it comes to quality and efficiency, two areas where the digital transformation of services could have a significant impact. In the field of health care, for example, the region’s adverse event rates are around 11% for inpatient care and 5% for outpatient care. A recent IDB study noted that if LAC countries caught up with their more efficient peers in this area, life expectancy would rise by four years, even if the budget for public health remained the same.
Digital transformation holds solutions to help overcome these challenges. Unfortunately, much of the data we need in order to transform social services and improve quality and efficiency in Latin America is stored on paper—reams and reams of paper.
In fact, if each person in the region had a 5-page long medical file, 342 kilometers of filing cabinet drawers would be needed each year to store these records. This is the equivalent of almost four lengths of the Panama Canal.
The Deeper Meaning of Digital Transformation
Digital transformation means much more than having an x-ray in digital format or using mobile technology to make welfare payments. It means people living in a rural area don’t have to walk two hours to an ATM to find out whether they received a deposit because they were notified by cell phone. It means that instead of writing endless medical reports, community health workers or nurses can spend the day caring for families because their tablets generate reports automatically. It means saving a pregnant woman the hour-and-a-half bus ride to the hospital because her health center uses remote ultrasound technology to make sure her baby is healthy. It means doctors can know all the medications their patients are taking and avoid potentially harmful drug interactions.
Successful digital transformation makes services more accessible, enhances the quality and continuity of care, and boosts the transparency of data and its use for decision-making. But to achieve this success, we have to stop and reflect on our approach.
We can’t simply swap our filing cabinets for gigabytes in the cloud. It can be counterproductive and expensive to just digitize existing processes. As an IT director remarked, “Nothing makes a bad business process worse than putting a bunch of tech around it.” To reap the full benefits of their current and future investments, the countries in the region should take a deliberate and informed approach.
Steps Forward in Latin America and the Caribbean
Most digital transformation initiatives flop: they go over budget, take extra time, and don’t work like they were supposed to. Fortunately, there are various tools and lessons learned that we can draw on. The 9 principles for digital development contain important concepts and resources to boost returns on digital investments. In 2018, the IDB endorsed these principles and included them in its health and social protection agenda.
We can also look to multiple examples in the region:
- Uruguay and the National Electronic Medical Record System
- Costa Rica and the Unified Digital Health Record System
- Colombia and Costa Rica and their efforts to create better algorithms to sharpen the focus of social programs
- Chiapas, Mexico and a suite of four open-source tools for improving the logistics chain and management of medications
- Honduras and an app for capturing handwritten information from nurses and digitizing it using optical character recognition;
- El Salvador and a business intelligence tool—the eTAB—that has been used by five other governments to improve evidence based decision-making
- The Digital Health Cooperation Network of the Americas (RACSEL), which has documented technical lessons and recommendations from five governments on implementing electronic medical record systems
And there are doubtless many other examples besides these!
An Interactive Platform to Drive Solutions
In a push to accelerate learning and share resources and lessons, the IDB is launching +Digital, an interactive “one-stop shop” for digital transformation in the health and social protection sector. Here you will find:
- guides and manuals
- educational materials
- research and publications
- webinars and videos from leading thinkers on the subject
- links to websites with relevant information.
The aim is to get behind countries in the region that want to expand their digital health capabilities. Visit +Digital and contribute to the region’s digital transformation by sharing your algorithms, experiences, and lessons learned!
 Business Case: Document Management and Imaging System (DMIS), Jamaica Ministry of Health & MDA Health Solutions, 2014, estimates that 3 pages of paper are used for every outpatient visit, 5 for every emergency room visit, and 10 for every inpatient stay. Every 500 pages was estimated to take up to 5 cm of filing cabinet drawer space.
 The population of Latin America and the Caribbean is around 684 million. The Panama Canal is 82 kilometers (51 miles) long.
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