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Taming the Wild West of Digital Health Innovation

Digital innovations in health hold significant promise – and imply serious risks. Only with a clear-eyed assessment of a new technology – including who is responsible for it and who could be left behind if it is deployed – can we ensure that the digital revolution delivers on its promise to improve global health.

CAPE TOWN – Digital technology is revolutionizing our daily lives. Mobile devices monitor our movements, marketing algorithms guide our consumption, and social media shape our worldviews and politics. While such innovations have their advantages, they also carry significant risks, including potentially widening existing inequalities within our societies. This prospect is particularly worrying when it comes to global health.

Sustaining and scaling digital health innovations is hardly an easy process. Of the more than 600 pilot mobile-health initiatives that emerged in the last decade, very few reached delivery at scale, and even fewer were sustained. Nonetheless, some high-profile digital health initiatives – such as MomConnect in South Africa and Mobile Academy, TeCHO+, and ANMOL in India – shifted, at least partly, from donor to government funding. This change is part of an ongoing wave of enthusiasm for new technologies’ potential to improve health systems and in turn, health. It reflects key opportunities to shape the digital health sector in ways that benefit all of society.

To be sure, steps are already being taken to position health-related digital technologies as a disruptive force for good. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced the creation of a Department of Digital Health, along with guidelines on digital health interventions.

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