Building for today: Healthcare innovation in emerging markets

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FHI editorial team

Nov 30, 2016 - reading time 5 mins

By Simon Spurr


Simon (currently co-founder and CEO of Care Delivery, and Director of HealthCloud based in JHB, South Africa) has worked in the South African and United Kingdom healthcare industries for the past 15 years. He has a deep understanding of the healthcare industry–funding, insurance design and modeling, wellness programmes and rewards platforms Simon is passionate about the collaboration of healthcare and technology. This new frontier called mHealth is, in his words, “the next great enabler in global healthcare systems”.

By Simon SpurrClick here to read less

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Healthcare is consuming an escalating share of funds in developed and developing nations alike; yet innovators are finding ways to deliver care at significantly lower cost while improving access and increasing quality.

African Hospital

Many of the most compelling innovations come from emerging markets. Two factors help explain this:

  • First, necessity breeds innovation. In the absence of adequate healthcare, existing providers and entrepreneurs must improvise and innovate
  • Second, because of weaknesses in infrastructure and resources of emerging markets, entrepreneurs face fewer constraints.

Mobile health

Patients and doctors in emerging markets are more likely to use mobile health (mHealth) than those in developed countries. Concurrently, more payers in emerging markets cover the cost of mHealth than in developed countries. Why? Existing healthcare is scarce. In many cases, mobile technology is the only affordable tool to reach people. The lack of existing infrastructure means fewer entrenched interests, so lower barriers. Change is welcomed.

Take healthcare to the patient

One solution is to design systems that bring care closer to patients – as opposed to going to the hospital to get it. Innovators can lower distribution costs and improve adherence to clinical protocols by moving the delivery of care closer to the homes of patients, providing services that take advantage of established behavior patterns, or both.


Putting the patient in the center provides a 360˚ perspective on how care and support work in the health system. It requires a whole rethinking of how care is provided, in which the doctor is part of the team, not the center. Implementing such systems requires training. The Social Health Activist programme in India has trained nearly one million community health workers. Another requirement will be to enable patients to self-monitor.

Integrate with existing technology

Another solution is to use existing technology to reinvent delivery. Repurposing mobile-phone systems, call centers and existing infrastructure allows innovators to extend healthcare access, increase the standardization of care and improve labor productivity. In South Africa, MomConnect is a mobile app to register all pregnancies across the country and provides free messaging servicesto create awareness among pregnant women about available health services for their infants.

Bridge the rural-urban divide

Telemedicine can bridge the rural-urban divide by extending low-cost consultation and diagnosis facilities to the remotest areas. Telemedicine is a fast-emerging sector in India with several major hospitals adopting these services. Similarly, Mexico’s MedicallHome offers its one million subscribers access to professional health advice at a cost far below the charge for a physician’s visit.

Wearables and social media

Wearable technologies may soon change the way people who are managing chronic diseases experience care. While personal activity trackers might not yet make sense for most individuals in low income communities, there is an important role for connected health in emerging markets. Data and technology will guide the development of telehealth programs and institutionalize access to health data and information. On the diagnostic side, the role of wearables will evolve as access to a connected world with more data expands (274m expected to be sold in 2016). Patients will connect to experts and knowledge that is not locally available, improving timely diagnosis, treatment and disease management. Meanwhile, social media is becoming immensely important as a feedback mechanism and potential clinical tool. Although Americans make up the majority of Facebook users, Indonesia has the second-highest number of users, with 40 million accounts. India, Turkey and Mexico each have more than 30 million users.


Using technology and data to gain an understanding of how diseases are developing and where they are occurring can help determine not only the treatment needed, but also the resources required to build or expand an infrastructure. It can help these markets answer the questions of how many clinics, how many hospitals and how many nurses are needed, both in quantity, but also in capability.


Mobile is the most widespread communication infrastructure in the world. A study by Accenture found that more than 70% of people in emerging economies, including Brazil, South Africa and Russia, are leading the adoption of mobile devices to access the Internet. Over the past two years a person’s mobile phone has rapidly become a biosensor, a laboratory, a scanner and a data processor. Mobile technology removes obstacles such as geographic distances and time barriers. Doctors can monitor remotely and constantly; not periodically. According to Philips’ 2016 Future Health Index, one-third (33%) of all healthcare professionals surveyed feel patients would manage their health more effectively if they used technology to keep track of health indicators, and 30% of patients agree. According to Philips’ Future Health Index, one-third (33%) of all healthcare professionals surveyed feel patients would manage their health more effectively if they used technology to keep track of health indicators, and 30% of patients agree. Mobile technology has to be the next great ‘enabler’ in healthcare. It has the potential to improve workplace efficiencies, increase patient safety, better coordinate care, facilitate payments and engage patients.


Healthcare stakeholders should embrace digital to drive efficiency, generate insights for clinical decision-making and advance care delivery. By leveraging the power of mobile communications, mHealth is making it possible to bring care to many rural, underserved parts of the world. Care and monitoring that previously required a visit to a clinic can be managed remotely at home.

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