By Schenley Belmonte
Strong health systems and equal access to quality healthcare are crucial to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and information and communication technology (ICT) has the potential to enhance both of these areas.
This fact surfaced during the Third Philippine Health Outlook Forum held last December 13.
During the said Forum, government officials and private group representatives alike shared how technology is currently being harnessed to improve government services and how it can further enhance health systems.
In his Forum presentation entitled “Pursuing Kalusugan Pangkalahatan (Universal Health Care) and Health MDGs through Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs),” Health Secretary Enrique Ona reported on the health gains that have been made since the start of the Aquino administration. These include the enrollment of 5.2 million poorest families to the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (Philhealth), the improvement of facilities across the country’s rural areas and the hiring of 21,500 new nurses to serve in these facilities.
However, according to Ona, greater funding is necessary to sustain these gains. He said they need P80 billion in 2012 alone but their expected allotment next year is only half of this amount. Moreover, P200 billion additional funds will be needed between 2013 and 2016 to achieve Universal Health Care. This urgent need opens the opportunity for PPPs, as expressed by Ona when he said, “Thankfully, to overcome these concerns, we have thus far been able to utilize and rely upon a great tool: Public-Private Partnerships.”
The same was reiterated by Zuellig Family Foundation (ZFF) Chairman Roberto Romulo who said that through PPPs, the MDGs “can be achieved in less time, at lower cost and with greater sustainability.”
One specific opportunity for PPP is the booming field of ICT. “We must scale up and learn to maximize the use of modern information and communication technology towards the goal of improving the sharing, analysis and validation of data and health information,” Ona said.
Philhealth CEO Eduardo Banzon echoed the need for ICT in Philhealth. They need ICT for information management, database management and data capture.
Ona cited PhilHealth’s new services made possible through partnerships with the private sector. PhilHealth, through partnerships with the SM chain of malls and the CIS Bayad centers, was able to build convenient registration sites for their enrollees. In addition, telecommunication companies, like Globe and Smart, have provided marketing and communications support to promote PhilHealth benefits to the public. And with the help of IT solutions company E-soluzione, Filipinos are able to transact with PhilHealth using their mobile phones.
The need for private sector participation in ICT for health has actually gotten the attention of a group of private firms and individuals who formed a technical working group (TWG) following the Second Philippine HOF that was held last year.
Esther Go, president of the technology solutions firm Medilink and member of the said TWG presented their group’s specific recommendations.
Her group said information should be standardized so errors in the information and management systems can be minimized. They also recommended that all providers, facilities, pharmacies and approved medicines be given “identifiers” so these can easily be identified and accounted for.
She also cited transformational applications, like telemedicine and mhealth, as necessary tools to eliminate distance barriers and improve equity in access to medical services. Through this technology, both patient and doctor need not be at the same place at the time to make proper diagnostics. They will just need a mobile application to communicate.
Her group also called for the establishment of a National ICT4H Stakeholder Council and the appointment of a DOH Chief of Information. Other recommendations of her group include the establishment of compliance bodies to test and certify, and prevent abuse of the standards and the capacity-building of health workers. The group suggested that all public health workers be ICT literate by 2016, which means ICT training programs must be incorporated in the continuing education of all health workers.
Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP) President Governor Alfonso Umali also called for the need for ICT. He also underscored the critical roles played by local and provincial governments in the health systems and cited innovations that have improved health services. Among these is the transformation of the provincial government’s pharmacy into an economic enterprise to address the perennial problem of lack of medicines. These days, the pharmacy has become self-sustaining and able to provide the medical supply needs of rural health units and village pharmacies.
After the Forum, the recommendations of the Forum participants were gathered and analyzed. Based on these, the ZFF will form new technical working groups to work on the achievement of the MDGs, similar to that of the TWG on ICT.