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Tech-driven transformation: charting a digital future for healthcare in the Pacific Islands

Introduction by Croakey: Digital technologies offer an opportunity to complement and enhance health systems in the Pacific Islands, overcoming some barriers to access, according to Dr Adam Craig from The University of Queensland.

Below, Craig highlights recent examples of innovation in digital healthcare in the Pacific Islands, while also outlining some recommendations to address challenges.


Adam Craig writes:

Tuvalu, a small yet innovative Pacific Island nation, has taken a pioneering step in digital healthcare. By digitally linking its hospital and nurse-led clinics on outer islands through satellite technology, Tuvalu has revolutionised healthcare accessibility.

This digital leap allows patients to access basic telemedicine services, reducing the need for lengthy sea journeys to see a doctor, which can take up to two days from some of the outer islands.

Moreover, health workers on outer islands leverage commonly used communication platforms, like WhatsApp and Viber, to enable real-time collaboration and critical clinical advice sharing with their doctor and specialist colleagues at the county’s only hospital in the capital, Funafati.

Additionally, technology enabled them to participate, through Zoom, to global debate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

These are just some examples of the evolving landscape of healthcare delivery across the Pacific Islands where use of technology, while still in a nascent phase, is emerging as a transformative force with the potential to redefine the region’s health outcomes.

Pacific Island leadership

Recent announcements of increased funds in Australia’s aid program for Pacific Island health projects signal a strategic response to geopolitical shifts in the region.

The spotlight on the Pacific Islands creates opportunities for a promising digital health future for the islands, which are poised to capitalise on the advancements in information and communications technology and rise of digital health tools to reshape their healthcare systems.

Other recent examples of Pacific leadership in this space also include the advent of digitally supported communication among health workers in the Solomon Islands, cloud-based medical record storage in Tonga, and near real-time disease surveillance in Papua New Guinea.

Despite encouraging examples, challenges persist in the implementation of digital health initiatives in the Pacific. Misalignment between system design and contextual realities, varying priorities among end-users, designers, and funders, and the assumption of a one-size-fits-all approach has hindered the success of many well-intentioned projects.

Addressing challenges

We outlined recommendations to address four key challenges in a recently published study in the journal Pacific Health.

Firstly, the digitisation of health information is paramount, requiring broad investment in systemwide architecture for sustained and scalable adoption of digital systems. This includes the development of policies, regulations, standards, infrastructure, and training for health workers that is required and underpins successful and sustainable digital innovation.

Secondly, technology-enabled telehealth emerges as a crucial strategy to overcome geographical barriers to healthcare access, particularly in remote areas. The success of Tuvalu’s telehealth model serves as inspiration for other Pacific countries who aspire to achieve universal health coverage.

Thirdly, improving communication between facilities and health workers becomes possible through digital connectivity. With mobile internet usage on the rise and expanding coverage, the Pacific Islands can transcend physical limitations and enhance the efficiency of healthcare delivery.

Lastly, addressing health workforce training needs is imperative, especially in the wake of the pandemic. E-learning platforms offer a viable solution to remotely deliver training, building skills, and overcoming travel-related costs associated with traditional models.

Opportunity to improve systems

In essence, the integration of digital health tools complement and enhance health system functions, offering opportunities to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of healthcare enterprises.

While recognising the ongoing need to strengthen core system capabilities, the Pacific Islands stand at the cusp of a digital health revolution that promises equitable and quality care for all.

The decision to pursue a digital health future will inevitably push some health care managers and workers outside their comfort zones. The key to overcoming this lies in demonstrating the added value technology brings, making using new digital tools easy, and ensuring that the vision for what digital health can offer is a shared one.

The international development assistance community, including the World Health Organization, the Pacific Community and the Australian and New Zealand Aid programs, has a role to play by providing stewardship and support for long-term, strategic, and visionary thinking about health sector reform, and through aid investments that make the adoption of prudent digital technologies in health feasible.

About the author

Dr Adam Craig is an infectious disease epidemiologist and global health system researcher.

He has more than 25 years of experience in health, having worked across and with Australian, Asian and Pacific health authorities.

Among other areas, his research explores the use of digital technology to support health information collection and exchange and how technology improves health system function.

In addition to his academic roles, Adam is a senior advisor to the Australia-Indonesia Health Security Partnership and a researcher for the Asia Pacific Observatory on Health Systems and Policies.


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