Digital self-care: A data-driven approach to person-centered health in low- and middle-income countries

This post was originally featured on the Global Self-Care Federation’s blog.

Patricia N. Mechael PhD MHS, Co-founder and Policy Lead at not-for-profit HealthEnabled discusses how the evolution of digital technology has moved self-care into a new realm to transform health.

Throughout the world there is a movement towards greater engagement of people in their own health alongside an increased proliferation of digital health tools and services in low- and middle-income countries. These trends are leading to a more data-driven approach and to person-centered health, particularly in settings where there are limited numbers of health professionals and/or facilities.

This movement has been accelerated by the current Covid-19 pandemic, which is advancing digital transformation of the health sector and shifting care from institutions and professionals towards individuals through self-care.  Self-care as defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) is the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.

Digital health is the systematic application of information and communications technologies, computer science, and data to support informed decision-making by individuals, the health workforce, and health systems, to strengthen resilience to disease and improve health and wellness for all[1].

Digital health is referenced within the WHO Guidelines for self-care interventions for health: sexual and reproductive health and rights as a point of access as well as an enabler. A new publication by HealthEnabled commissioned and informed by the Self-care Trailblazer Group: Digital self-care: A framework for design, implementation, and research highlights some of the emerging opportunities and considerations for low- and middle-income countries as they strive to harness new innovations in digital technology to support self-care.

Examples include telehealth, mobile phone and web-based applications and information services to support increased self-awareness, self-testing, and self-management in sexual and reproductive health. In the case of family planning, this includes self-injections and HIV self-testing. With non-communicable diseases it means being able to self-manage diseases such as diabetes, and in terms of communicable diseases to self-test for infectious diseases such as Covid-19.

Digital technologies offer an opportunity to provide targeted information and access to services and commodities such as test kits based on an individual’s needs and circumstances. The person and his or her device becomes the point of access. In addition to personalization and access, the unique attributes of the intersection of digital health and self-care include autonomy and anonymity, linkages to the health system for continuity of care, and the ability to provide continuous program monitoring for quality, safety and user satisfaction and impact.

Digital tools lend themselves well to collecting information about an individual’s preferences. Through the use of digital self-care services, we are able to obtain insights to better tailor information and services as well as inform product and service improvements and research.

To this end, there are new opportunities to leverage data from such services to evaluate if digital self-care is truly delivering on its promise of person-centered health. Digital technologies are an integral part of achieving better health outcomes, and will help to advance research, disease prevention and care.

[1] Consensus definition developed by Health Data Collaborative Digital Health and Interoperability Working Group under review by WHO.