Health technologies are increasingly prevalent and integrated into modern medical care. However, these technologies are often designed in and for societies with strong health infrastructures that many developing communities lack.
Thus, the implementation of health technologies in global health requires careful consideration of the accessibility and sustainability of these technologies.
What are health technologies?
The World Health Organization defines health technologies as “medicines, medical devices, vaccines, procedures and systems developed to solve a health problem and improve quality of life.”
Health technologies may be as complex as artificial intelligence surgical robots or as simple as electronic medical records.
How are health technologies be used in global health?
Appropriate health technologies can be extremely useful in addressing large scale global health issues. For example, one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) targeting world health is “to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.”
In the United States, education about the transmission of HIV/AIDS and the availability of prophylactic drugs has made the disease a chronic, manageable condition.
Technology that can make HIV/AIDS education accessible to large populations, such as a mobile app, and the development of cheap, effective medication could produce similar results in areas where HIV/AIDS is still an acute, widespread condition.
Additionally, technology can be used to compensate for a lack of trained specialist clinicians in rural areas, via telehealth, or to empower communities with the equipment needed to treat basic health issues, such as simple diagnostic tests.
What barriers exist in bringing technology into global health?
Much health technology is developed and sold in developed, wealthy countries. One study estimates that 87% of health technology sales take place in the EU, the United States, and Japan.
These technologies may not be purposed for health issues prevalent in lower- and middle-income countries. Even when applicable, the technology may not be easily adapted for areas without a large pool trained technicians or reliable energy supply.
Health technology also requires management and maintenance, and there must be regulations set for quality and safety control. Finally, there is a growing awareness of the need to respect local cultures, so global health technology would ideally not disrupt traditions and values.
One solution to the gap in useful global health technologies is to increase funding for research and development. Since much of the market for health technology is in wealthy countries, incentives are often needed to drive global health research.
The Global Health Technologies Coalition (GHTC) estimates that the private sector only comprises 16% of global health research spending, and only 2% of health spending worldwide is dedicated to global health issues.
GHTC proposes providing tax credits or advance market commitments as possible incentives. It would also be useful to focus on funding in the developing countries, as ventures there would most likely be more culturally sensitive.
In terms of managing and maintaining health technology, WHO found that most countries (76%) already have Health Technology Management units within their Ministries of Health; an even larger percentage, 82%, had medical equipment management unit with professionally trained engineers or technicians.
This issue is therefore not the creation of such groups but making sure that the technologies they are responsible fall within their capabilities and resources and establishing clear guidelines and policies for health technology usage.
While much of the discussion about global health technology has focused on medical advancements, global health would also greatly benefit from other types of technology. For example, many maternal deaths occur in areas where mothers are not able to get to hospitals.
Maternal health, another MDG, would benefit from improvements in transportation infrastructure. Another MDG addresses hunger, which would be best combatted through agricultural advancements. Improvements in educational systems would create more trained clinicians.
Modern technologies are becoming ubiquitous in healthcare systems and can address a variety of healthcare and medical related issues. However, as these advancements are implemented globally, they must be cheap, safe, and effective to truly benefit a global population.