As the shape of our world is increasingly being defined by the Covid-19 pandemic, digitalisation poses an opportunity, having the ability to help our fight against the disease.
Digital technologies and environment offer new avenues for identifying needs and delivering healthcare services, which can contribute to wider welfare goals such as quality, accessibility, efficiency and equity in healthcare. Many digitally advanced governments such as that of Austria have stepped up access to public services via mobile phones. Can digital technologies benefit healthcare services in Pakistan? What lessons can we learn?
The widespread penetration of mobile phones offers a potential instrument for public service delivery. The International Telecommunication Union estimates that of the global population of 7 billion, 6.5 billion have access to a mobile phone.
This penetration is not limited geographically but is seen both in advanced and developing economies, standing at around 100% in low and middle-income and 55% in low-income countries in 2018.
According to the Oxford Policy Management blog, digital technologies can offer direct and indirect benefits. Direct benefits encompass improving the efficiency and effectiveness of public service delivery by lowering costs of delivering public services.
Moreover, they can also be efficient in terms of improving the quality of delivery, for example in the case of using tele-medicine. Tele-medicine services can also give a boost to female labour force participation in Pakistan. Female doctors, who form almost 60-70% of the student body in medical colleges but less than 30% as practising doctors, can especially benefit from this.
Digital technologies can also indirectly benefit public service delivery through strengthening feedback flows from users to service providers. Government authorities can use this feedback to improve service delivery. Focusing on health, countries are experimenting with a variety of applications aiming to improve service delivery ranging from vaccination schemes to improvements in disease tracking and pandemic alerts.
A good example in this regard is the District Delivery Challenge Fund (part of a large sub-national governance programme) implemented in Pakistan that aims to improve health service delivery in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces. A key feature of this programme is that it links local basic health units with specialists in district hospitals.
Digitalisation can also improve public service delivery in other sectors of the economy. A blog by the Brookings Institution, published in 2018, shows that digitisation serves as a platform for African economies to improve financial development.
Digitisation may help but it is not always the most appropriate solution for improving public service delivery and such projects often fail to deliver the anticipated results when implemented.
The World Development Report of 2016 shows that almost a third of public sector digital technology projects fail. They are also prone to budget overrun and experiencing considerable delays. This results in huge wastage of resources.
Another important risk to the success of digitalisation is due to exclusion. A large proportion of women in developing economies and rural populations do not have access to cellphones, limiting the success of such projects. Governments should prioritise institutional development and provision of fundamental services to their population.
THE WRITER IS A DOCTORAL CANDIDATE AT THE BARTLETT, UCL
Published in The Express Tribune, February 15th, 2021.
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