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Digital Healthcare

The staggering difference in pro-capita expenditure in healthcare, from 27$ per person per year in Ethiopia to 9869$ in the US. Notice that Ethiopia is not the lowest spending countries, Gambia, as an example, dedicates just 20$ per person per year to healthcare. Image credit: Worldbank

The disparity in the world healthcare among Countries is huge, as shown in the World Bank data, and, unfortunately, it is no April fools. Bet869ween the Gambia 20$ and the US 9869$ per person per year there is a factor of 493! Now, one might observe that the value of 1 $ in Gambia is much more than that same $ value in the US but we are in the range of 1 to 20 (for food, as an example) not 1 to 500. Besides, there are some cost in healthcare that are not that different from Country to Country. Whilst labour cost (nurses and doctors) can be lower, the cost of a CT-Scan machine is basically the same.
Besides, the pro-capita cost of healthcare is reflecting not as much the real expenditure at personal level, rather the cost of the healthcare infrastructure to deliver services when needed (hospitals, equipment, medicines…). This means that if something bad happens to you in the US the cost of healthcare may be huge, but the service is there, whilst in poor country there will be no service at all.

Upgrading the healthcare service in poor Countries seems like an impossible task. So it seemed providing telecommunication services.

I was in Laos just few weeks ago, although it seems a lifetime ago. Took a picture of this child focussed on streaming content on a smartphone. She was living in a wooden cabin, and not a nice one on our standards, yet telecom services were present and affordable.

Just 20 years ago Telecommunications was close to non-existing in several poor African Countries and in a few of Asian Countries, with a penetration between 10 to 20%. According to the Telecommunication Union, moving up 10% points in penetration required 19 years (actually 19 years to go from 10 to 20%, 12 years to go from 20 to 30, 8 years from 30 to 40%…).

Well, in less than 10 years telecommunications services have become basically ubiquitous, thanks to mobile networks and extremely affordable cell phones. Today we have telecommunications infrastructures covering the globe and most important any person can afford to be connected.

Digitalisation, economy of scale, and low cost of content (close to zero actually) have changed the rules of the game.
Notice that the adoption of cell phones have led to the parallel creation of a pervasive electrical grid (non existent in Laos just 20 years ago when accessing to the Internet via a wireless gateway required you to sit on a sort of bike and pedal to spin a dynamo to generate the required electrical power!) as well as adoption of solar panels and accumulators in more remote locations.

Smartphones have created a self sustainable infrastructure, built bottom up. Now it is time to use this infrastructure for education and healthcare. It is already used for business, banking (virtual banks, distributed lending….).

Current sensors in a smartphone, starting with the videocamera, can provide data to embedded applications for a first screening and the raising of red flags. The smartphone then becomes a gateway connecting to second level remote healthcare, both in form of medical personnel and AI based application for real time consultancy.

A graphic that demonstrates how the smartphone virus scanner works. The virus-containing cavities are 4.5 micrometres across and 9 micrometres apart. Image credit: © 2019 Minagawa et al.

Smartphones enabled communities can provide for further assistance and for on site support. Smartphones adds on can increase the capability of data harvesting, like blood and saliva test, virus and bacterial detection.

Special apps can provide data of the heart beat, on presence of blood circulation problems, like atheroscleroses of the carotid arteries.

The crucial points here are twofold: first, testing through a smartphone makes them affordable and second it makes them feasible with no or very limited training.

Furthermore,  all these data generated by hundreds of thousands of people in a given area can be mined to extract health read flags as well as to determine, in the field, the effect of prophylactic measures and drugs. Data analytics is bound to change the pharma protocols in this decade.

We are in the brink of a dramatic change in healthcare, a change that can be compared to the one brought forward by the wireless revolution, leveraging on the tools, smartphones, that accompanied it. Add to this artificial intelligence and you have a perfect storm for a better, ubiquitous digital healthcare.



About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.