The role of digital health in making progress toward Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3 in conflict-affected populations.

Publication Date: 
Nov 11, 2017

PURPOSE: The progress of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) shows that sustained global action can achieve success. Despite the unprecedented achievements in health and education, more than one billion people, many of them in conflict-affected areas, were unable to reap the benefits of the MDG gains. The recently developed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are even more ambitious then their predecessor. SDG 3 prioritizes health and well-being for all ages in specific areas such as maternal mortality, communicable diseases, mental health, and healthcare workforce. However, without a shift in the approach used for conflict-affected areas, the world's most vulnerable people risk being left behind in global development yet again. We must engage in meaningful discussions about employing innovative strategies to address health challenges fragile, low-resource, and often remote settings. In this paper, we will argue that to meet the ambitious health goals of SDG 3, digital health can help to bridge healthcare gaps in conflict-affected areas.

METHODS: First, we describe the health needs of populations in conflict-affected environments, and how they overlap with the SDG 3 targets. Secondly, we discuss how digital health can address the unique needs of conflict-affected areas. Finally, we evaluate the various challenges in deploying digital technologies in fragile environments, and discuss potential policy solutions.

DISCUSSION: Persons in conflict-affected areas may benefit from the diffusive nature of digital health tools. Innovations using cellular technology or cloud-based solutions overcome physical barriers. Additionally, many of the targets of SDG 3 could see significant progress if efficacious education and outreach efforts were supported, and digital health in the form of mHealth and telehealth offers a relatively low-resource platform for these initiatives. Lastly, lack of data collection, especially in conflict-affected or otherwise fragile states, was one of the primary limitations of the MDGs. Greater investment in data collection efforts, supported by digital health technologies, is necessary if SDG 3 targets are to be measured and progress assessed. Standardized EMR systems as well as context-specific data warehousing efforts will assist in collecting and managing accurate data. Stakeholders such as patients, providers, and NGOs, must be proactive and collaborative in their efforts for continuous progress toward SDG 3. Digital health can assist in these inter-organizational communication efforts.

CONCLUSION: The SDGS are complex, ambitious, and comprehensive; even in the most stable environments, achieving full completion towards every goal will be difficult, and in conflict-affected environments, this challenge is much greater. By engaging in a collaborative framework and using the appropriate digital health tools, we can support humanitarian efforts to realize sustained progress in SDG 3 outcomes.