Commercially-driven digital transformation will not deliver health benefits, say experts

Our Bureau Mumbai | Updated on October 25, 2021

‘It must be in the public interest rather than for private profit’

Digital technologies are transforming life and health, a trend accelerated by Covid-19; however, its benefits are not reaching everyone equally, say experts.

In its latest report, Lancet and Financial Times Commission, said: “Limited governance, together with the accumulation of data and power by the world’s big technology companies and governments for surveillance, are exacerbating health inequities, eroding trust and compromising human rights.”

Pointing out that the health of people can be improved through digital transformations, the report said this was possible only if it were governed “in the public interest rather than for private profit, and the health for all values of democracy, equity, solidarity, inclusion, and human rights are put at the core of its design and use...”

The commission involved 19 leading experts from 14 countries, with backgrounds in global health, clinical medicine, public health, digital media, besides global consultations with youth groups. India’s CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), and Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research, were part of the commission.

A new approach

The report warns that following the current path of data-extractive, commercially-driven digital transformations will fail to deliver health benefits to all.

Instead, it recommended a radical new approach that redirected digital technologies “to advance universal health coverage (all people receiving quality health services without incurring financial hardship) ensures that the gains in digital health are equitable, and puts children and young people, who have been exposed to these technologies their entire lives, front and centre”.

The report also points out the extremes in digital access encountered by young people growing up in this digital world, where some are “digitally consumed and vulnerable to online harm and many digitally excluded, affecting their access to education and employment as well as health information and services”.

While smartphone ownership was rising globally, over 2 billion people – aged 25 years and younger – remain unconnected. And the gender disparity gets added to this, with more men using the Internet in two out of every three countries.

The Co-Chair of the Commission, IGIB’s Professor Anurag Agrawal, said: “Putting the concerns and expectations of children and young people who are growing up in an increasingly digital world at the heart of efforts to reimagine universal health coverage will be crucial to ensuring that everyone benefits from digital health.”

The Co-Chair of the Commission, Professor Ilona Kickbusch, from Switzerland’s Global Health Centre, points out: “While there is great hype and technology excitement, there has been little focus on broader societal and governance questions. For example, how do we protect data confidentiality while simultaneously ensuring that such data is used effectively to benefit public health? How can we address a lack of trust in technology by involving people and communities more centrally in its design and governance? This report must be a wake-up call for countries to overhaul their approach to digital health, laying out a roadmap that governments and societies can use to put essential regulation and governance in place that will result in a healthier, fairer future for all.”

Published on October 25, 2021

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