This article was originally published on Devex, (www.devex.com)
We have all witnessed the devasting ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted lives and livelihoods on a scale never seen before, and with repercussions that will last for many years to come.
The emergence of COVID-19 has tested our health systems beyond their limits and exposed enduring fault lines in health services. However, while we continue to work to overcome the pandemic, we must also look to the future.
The need for health care reforms has never been more pressing. We need to ensure health systems can withstand future pressure and that all communities have equitable access to health care, especially if we are to tackle the silent pandemic of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).
Listen to Leon Wang discuss future-proofing health systems in emerging economies in this virtual conversation at Devex Prescription for Progress
Despite global health care developments being accelerated by the pandemic, NCDs such as diabetes, chronic lung illnesses, cancer, and heart disease remain the world’s biggest killers. NCDs kill 41 million people each year, equivalent to 71% of all deaths globally. They disproportionately affect people in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) where more than three quarters of global NCD deaths occur and where patients’ outcomes are greatly affected by inequality in health care provision.
Infrastructure in LMICs was already stretched well beyond capacity and with all available resources poured into fighting COVID-19, the essential delivery of routine care has been the victim, resulting in later diagnosis of NCDs and consequently life-threatening health outcomes.
Building health systems that are more resilient and able to continue to deliver routine care even during a crisis will require finding innovative ways to prevent diseases, diagnose patients earlier, and address them more effectively at home and outside clinics. We must now pursue our collective ability to create resilience for NCDs.
Can technology future-proof health systems?
Over the past few years, we have seen an increase in the use of technology and digital solutions in many countries to help deliver enhanced care to patients and improve health outcomes, as well as reduce the environmental footprint of health care. This is sustainable care in action. By leveraging mhealth consultations during the pandemic, patients didn’t have to travel to clinics and could access medical expertise virtually. Beyond COVID-19, the rapid growth of digital healthcare is incredibly exciting and we’re optimistic about the possibilities this brings in terms of earlier diagnosis, real-time monitoring of patients to prevent deterioration and allowing patients to have greater control in their treatment by offering an individual approach to their healthcare journey.
As part of our Health Innovation Hubs network, we have worked with tech companies around the world — including in many LMICs — to bring to life innovative and digitally-led approaches to improving access to healthcare which includes clinical trials. By leveraging digital technologies, we enable patients to find and participate in trials and then provide data remotely from home to proactively monitor and help manage their condition.
One area representing opportunities to make a meaningful impact to our science, medicines, and society is the use of artificial intelligence, or AI. Data science and AI allow us to analyse and interpret colossal amounts of data at a much faster pace than is humanly possible — and perhaps more importantly, to do so more accurately.
In addition to giving us a greater understanding of diseases, AI systems also help us design smarter trials, match patients with the right clinical trials, and help us improve our supply chains when delivering medicines or vaccines. Another way we’re using AI is for the interpretation of radiology images through a partnership with Qure.ai, a developer of deep learning algorithms. It also allows for the early detection of lung cancer in patients across Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. By integrating this technology at primary care clinics, we hope to see a faster diagnosis of lung cancer and a significant reduction in lung cancer mortality rates.
What COVID-19 has made painfully clear is the need for greater health equity with a shared commitment to improving population health beyond the pandemic. Driving policy change is key, and education and empowerment among patients and in LMIC communities are equally critical. I’m very proud of the Young Health Programme we have set up at AstraZeneca together with UNICEF, Plan International and others to help educate young people on disease prevention, with a special focus on NCDs. Since its start in 2010, this programme has reached millions of people with health information in 30 countries across six continents, training over 250,000 peer educators and health care workers.
Such programmes are really making a difference, but we need businesses, governments, academia, global health organisations and entrepreneurs to drive collective action at pace to address the NCD burden. Only then can we achieve the necessary sustainable health systems and equitable access that will benefit the health of people, society, and our planet — now and for generations to come.