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Using digital technologies to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

Provide a case study on how digital technology is used to achieve SDG 3.
mother kissing newborn child

United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3 “aims to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all, at all ages.”

Health and well-being are important at every stage of one’s life, starting from the beginning. This goal addresses all major health priorities: reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health; communicable and non-communicable diseases; universal health coverage; and access for all to safe, effective, quality and affordable medicines and vaccines” (Unicef, n.d.).

The vast majority of maternal deaths (WHO, 2021) and the highest rates of child mortality (Our World in Data, 2021) occur in Africa, where poor infrastructure and poor, remote populations make access to quality healthcare a struggle. Despite remarkable progress having been made in the last 30 years, millions of children and thousands of mothers continue to die every year in Sub-Saharan Africa. Hundreds of thousands of these deaths result from malaria, which is responsible for two-thirds of all deaths of children under the age of 5. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 24 million children are estimated to be infected with the deadliest form of malaria, a disease which keeps families trapped in a vicious cycle of illness and poverty (Unicef, 2020).

Urgent action is required to reduce the numbers of maternal and child deaths. SDG 3 has a target of a global mortality rate of fewer than 70 per 100,000 live births, with some regions of Africa being the only parts of the world currently outside that target.

How technology is helping

One solution to the problem of poor healthcare availability in rural and remote communities is to piggyback an existing technology. The technology used in this case is simple – the cell phone. Cell phone ownership rates in Sub-Saharan Africa have reached around 80% of the population, with around a third of the total population owning smart phones. Such levels of coverage make the use of mobile technology extremely useful in addressing public health issues such as malaria in remote regions.

The device – which does not need specialist medical supervision – is applied to a patient’s finger and the result obtained entered into a mobile app called Yotta. The app uses machine learning algorithms to analyze data in aggregate, ensuring that individuals’ data remain confidential.

Benefits of the technology

Ugandan firm Matibabu aims “to close the gap between communities and the rightful access to health” (Matibabu, 2020). The company aims to apply this goal to malaria using an innovative, non-invasive medical device paired with mobile data collection. Rather than taking a sample of a patient’s blood, the device has been designed to clip onto a finger and detect Plasmodium, a parasite which causes malaria, by shining red lights onto the skin (Lewis, 2019). This approach provides a more rapid diagnosis, reducing the amount of medication required for treatment. The diagnosis is shared to a mobile device in under a minute, enabling the patient to record and monitor their health and Matibabu to collect and organize data on geographical trends with the hope of limiting the spread of outbreaks.

Matibabu’s device won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa Prize in 2018 (BBC, 2018), which came with an award of GBP£25,000 having previously won USD$10,000 on funding at a competition in Kenya (Olupot, 2017).

Lessons for other organisations

The main lesson to be learned from Matibabu’s malaria toolkit is that innovative solutions can come from simplifying existing equipment and using infrastructure (in terms both of devices and the means for sending data) which is already in place. While complex problems can create a need for complex solutions, those can be limited by the context in which they are employed, creating a need for a more innovative, entrepreneurial approach.

Several barriers and challenges remain both for organizations wishing to execute similar projects to Matibabu. First, although smart phone usage has spread rapidly worldwide, Sub-Saharan Africa remains the region with the lowest coverage rates in the world. Although low-tech options such as sending an SMS with test results might be possible, this could slow a system down and introduce elements of error currently guarded against by the data entry template used in smart phone applications. Second, the regulatory barriers to introducing medical devices can place a high burden of proof on entrepreneurs and inventors to demonstrate conclusively that their device meets strict standards.

© RMIT 2023
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