Digital Future

How Technology Can Make Healthcare Widely Accessible In Latin America

May 5, 2017 at 4:41 AM | Approx. reading time 4 mins.

Access to healthcare in Latin America has been increasing since the 1990s. However, day-to-day delivery of medical services still needs improvement. 30 percent of the population does not have access to healthcare and not many countries in the region meet international indicators on doctor-to-patient ratio. On an average, the region spends only 6.7 percent of its GDP on healthcare.

More recently, the Zika virus has taken a heavy toll on Latin America. The World Health Organization expects the virus to infect anywhere from 3 to 4 million people by 2017. An impact assessment by the United Nations Development Programme estimates the socio-economic costs of this mosquito-borne disease to be between US$7-18 billion from 2015 and 2017.

Healthcare in Latin America was at the centre of major attention during the World Economic Forum on Latin America. With technology playing a prominent role in almost every industry, those at the event including me, were mulling over whether it could become the central axis for equitable healthcare in South America? Almost 40 percent of the region's population use smartphones. Could this be the ubiquitous tool to deliver healthcare to economically disadvantaged and rural populations?

There is much that technology like mHealth can do to introduce and manage diagnostic services, treatment routines, provide data for R&D, simplify predictive medicine and more. For instance, Dr. Consulta, a startup in Brazil, uses data analysis and online technology to offer low cost, high quality primary healthcare services to the 100 million without health insurance in the country. Similarly, Memed is an e-prescription platform that maintains an online catalogue of medicines. Through Memed, doctors can browse through a list of medicines and write out the correct prescription. It enables doctors to prescribe accurately, faster and efficiently. This is especially helpful as it was found that medical prescriptions in Brazil had a 75 percent chance of error.

Latin America had approximately 156 million smartphone users in 2015. This number is set to grow at the rate of 12 percent year-on-year through 2019. Brazilian organization, Plataforma Saúde is preparing to capitalize on smartphone technology to provide easy access to healthcare to those who do not have it yet. Services of Plataforma Saúde include medical examinations to identify a person's susceptibility to chronic lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart ailments.

Going a step further, apps, wearable devices and wirelessly connected devices have the potential to shift healthcare delivery away from periodic medical checkups to data-driven, 'as needed' appointments. Wirelessly connected devices such as blood pressure monitors or glucose monitors, infusion pumps and other devices, which were once embedded with sensors can collect data, present it to patients and transmit it to physicians. Data from these devices enable users to assume greater responsibility for their health, harness automation to monitor different parameter of wellness and make educated decisions when needed. This type of care paves the way for leaner, connected and personalized health through cost-effective systems.

Since Latin America is a vast region. A standardized care path supported by data and automation can be a robust method to ensure predictable outcomes, and improve quality, accuracy and application of human and financial resources. The collection of data in a structured way, along with AI and robotic process automation, allows health providers to continually learn, improve processes, reduce cost of healthcare delivery and enhance effectiveness of services.

The United States has made great strides in ensuring healthcare accessibility through technology. There, the approach is patient centric. Technology plays out through electronic health records, apps, telemedicine, robotics, wearables, AI and more. It enables doctors to reach more patients, and besides offering healthcare, focus on preventive healthcare and wellness. An approach like this would enable Latin America to move away from a reactive approach to a proactive one - a direction embraced by all developed regions.