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March 01, 2017
Investments in startups support digital health in emerging markets
By: Monique Mrazek

Improving access to quality and affordable healthcare is a key priority for many emerging markets. Digital health could arguably bring the biggest benefit in addressing gaps in these markets where healthcare challenges are the most severe.

“Digital health,” often used interchangeably with the terms “connected health,” “e-health” and “mobile health,” refers to the concept of harnessing digital technologies—social networks, mobile solutions, data, the cloud, wireless sensors and other health IT information solutions—to deliver healthcare in a remote and virtually connected way. This is a rapidly growing segment globally, with investments of more than $7.9 billion in 2016, according to Startup Health including $500 million in Chinese mobile medical services.

Private sector investments make a difference
The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the arm of the World Bank Group that invests in the private sector in emerging markets, has recognized the developing interest in digital health in emerging markets. In 2016, IFC launched TechEmerge, a program that aims to accelerate technology deployment in emerging markets.

Much like Accenture’s HealthTech Innovation Challenge, TechEmerge connects startups with leading corporations to accelerate deployment of new technologies. In the case of TechEmerge the focus is on technology deployment in emerging markets. Through a competitive open application and curated matchmaking process, TechEmerge selects the most relevant startups to be introduced to a network of partner organizations, and provides financial and program support to implement pilots.

The first pilot of the program connected health sector innovators from India and abroad with leading healthcare providers in India. Many of the Indian healthcare providers prioritized digital health solutions, recognizing these could enable them to deliver care to underserved patients through new and more efficient business models. A number of the solutions being piloted through TechEmerge have a digital health component.

IFC also seeks investment opportunities that support the digital enablement of healthcare through its dedicated Venture Capital group, which invests in technology-driven businesses around the world. One such example is IFC’s investment in Portea Medical, India’s leading home care provider. Portea leverages mobile apps, connected diagnostic tools and monitoring solutions, enabling shared information to deliver care more efficiently and ultimately to bring better outcomes to its patients.

Reaching patients beyond the main cities
In sub-Saharan Africa, the rapid penetration of mobile internet, increasingly including smartphones, has given a boost to the deployment of digital health. A variety of mobile health apps have been built with government and NGO support, particularly in the area of maternal and child health. Increasingly, commercial digital health solutions developed on the continent, and addressing the challenges of health care delivery for patients in Africa, are starting to emerge.

Although challenges remain on the infrastructure side to support wider deployment of these solutions in Africa—including the need for improved data network coverage—IFC is increasingly seeing innovative health service delivery models in Africa and many other emerging markets leveraging digital health to reach patients beyond the main cities, in lower income segments and at a more affordable price point.

Looking to the future
As we look across emerging markets globally, many digital health startups are still nascent and require a supportive ecosystem. To realize the potential benefits of digital health to patients in emerging markets, global health Community will need to:

  • Evaluate emerging models for impact, affordability and sustainability.

  • Consider how governments can remove regulatory barriers that hinder the integration of these solutions to the benefit of all.

  • Find the right balance between ensuring the privacy of patient health data while enabling its aggregation in an anonymous manner to support analytic tools that benefit the wider population.

As innovation continues to create new technologies, and as obstacles to deploying them are overcome, the global health community should continue to embrace and promote digital health as a new support pillar for achieving improved health outcomes.

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