A young woman in Mexico with Type II diabetes hears her phone buzz and sees a notification – “Rise in blood sugar detected – inject 6 units of rapid acting insulin now.”
A teenager in rural Lima struggling with depression logs into an app to talk online with a licensed therapist who lives thousands of miles away.
An emergency room doctor in Uruguay is about to administer a medication to a patient when an alert pops up on the hospital’s electronic health record interface – “Do not administer – patient has allergic reaction.”
These scenarios are no longer the works of science fiction, but represent real ways in which digital technology could transform how patients and providers monitor and engage their health in Latin America in the next few years. In fact, its impact is already being felt.
That’s why the IDB is reviewing ways in which people are affected by digital health technologies. If you have any stories, images, and videos that describe how digital health has made an impact in your life, share them via email email@example.com or post to Twitter using #IDBDigitalHealth @BIDgente.
After reviewing emerging trends in healthcare, we’ve identified three main ways in which digital health is addressing key healthcare challenges and impacting the lives of patients in Latin America and beyond.
Impact #1: Digital health can make healthcare more accurate
Medical errors are far more frequent than most people imagine.
To provide some context, there is approximately a 1 in a million chance of being hurt while flying in a plane, but if a patient goes to a hospital in Latin America, the probability of being harmed through inappropriate medical treatment can be as high as 1 in 10.
Electronic health records are one way to reduce medical errors, particularly by reducing mistakes made in administering medication. One study showed that a computerized decision support system that recommended dosing guidelines resulted in 13% more accurate prescription dosing. In a different study at a pediatric hospital in the United States, a computerized tool led to a 59% decline in the need for pharmacy interventions to correct incorrect drug doses.
Another innovative way that digital health has responded to the need to reduce medical errors is relying upon other medical professionals to confirm a diagnosis – in other words, “crowdsourcing” a medical issue. A new initiative called Human Dx draws insights from over 8,000 members in 80 countries to collaborate on medical decisions.
Impact #2: Digital Health Technologies Lead to More Empowered Patients
Latin America is facing a significant rise in chronic illness. Managing chronic illness is leading practitioners away from traditional paternalistic healthcare systems, in which healthcare providers make decisions with little to no input from patients, toward patient-centered models, in which patients are empowered to manage their own care. This shift is especially important in managing these illnesses, which by their nature are long-term and require patients to be involved in self-care. One key tool that patients now have to help them better manage their care is digital health technologies.
Patients with diabetes, for example, must navigate decisions such as when to eat, when to exercise, and the dosing and timing of their insulin injections. Many health apps currently facilitate self-management by allowing patients with diabetes to upload their own glucose results, along with other health information.
Digital health can also strengthen the interaction between provider and patient. Not only do technologies that allow patients and providers to interact lead to increased patient satisfaction, they also can have demonstrable impacts on their health. A meta-analysis of 18 randomized control trials found that electronic systems that enabled patients and providers to communicate and send data back and forth led to significantly reduced HbA1c levels, a key indicator of blood sugar levels.
Impact #3: Digital health makes high-quality healthcare accessible to hard-to-reach areas
Access to high quality healthcare in rural areas has plagued countries’ health systems for decades. With physician shortages, there are not enough doctors to treat patients in remote areas.
However, digital health can help bridge that gap by providing high-quality healthcare to the most isolated patients. In Honduras, community health workers use tablets to register health and behavioral data when visiting patients in remote areas. They then use those same tablets to share videos that teach lessons related to maternal and child health.
Brazilis also experimenting with innovative solutions. The country suffers from a shortage of medical specialists. Often patients must wait 30 days on average for test results that cost hundreds of dollars. Portal Telemedicina, a telemedicine start-up, solves that problem by enabling clinics to upload diagnostic images such as EEGs and MRI scans to their system, which then uses a machine learning algorithm to detect any abnormalities. A proposed diagnosis is then sent to a remote specialist, who verifies the recommendation. Through this process, patients in a remote clinic in the Brazilian Amazon can receive their MRI results on the same day, with the test costing as low as $4.
Before you go
It’s important to remember that digital health technology must be properly evaluated. Only a small fraction of health apps available have been evaluated via clinical trials. Poorly designed systems can take away valuable time from a healthcare providers, or even worse, misinform or mislead patients. For these reasons, patients, providers, and digital tech manufacturers must continue to evaluate apps and use best practices of user-centered design in creating healthcare technologies. Because we have evidence that when designed and evaluated properly, digital health can make a real impact in the lives of patients.
We’d love to hear how digital health is making an impact in your life or the life of someone you love. Don’t forget to share stories, images, and videos that describe how digital health has made an impact in your life by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or posting on Twitter #IDBDigitalHealth @BIDgente.
Andrea Ulrich is a consultant at the Social Protection and Health Division of the Inter-American Development Bank.