Digital Health in Ethiopia Policy to Implementation: Opportunities & Challenges

June 9th, 2021 | Viewpoint

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Ethiopia has enjoyed tremendous gains in the health sector over the past couple of decades. Significant achievements were registered in improving the health of the population and increasing access to and utilization of health services. The country has been leading the way in formulating enabling health policy and strategies to stir improvement in the overall health of the population. It has also recognized the importance of health information, as reflected in its Health Sector Transformation Plan (HSTP). The HSTP has identified the information revolution (IR) as one of the four transformational agendas. To operationalize and set a clear pathway to implementation, the IR roadmap entails a radical shift from traditional methods of data utilization to a systematic information management approach powered by a corresponding level of technology.

All the policy documents, strategies, and road maps have helped the country to progress in HIS digitalization and the use of data for decision-making. The digital health blueprint (DHBP) makes Ethiopia one of the very few countries which have properly stated its vision and implementation pathway in a comprehensive way. 

The bold commitment taken by the government to maximize the use of digital technology in all sectors and the health sector’s leadership commitment, in particular, plays an exceptional role in propelling Ethiopia to the next level.

While the country has what it needs to transform the digital health/eHealth space, it must overcome certain impediments. Though a lot has gone into restructuring the governance of the HIS, it needs further modification to support and manage all digital health endeavors. While the sector continues to advance digital tools, infrastructure investment seems to be lagging behind. Without reliable ICT infrastructure at service delivery points, the much-awaited journey to go fully digital will be very difficult to attain. The decision to invest in infrastructure, from mobile phones and tablets to data centers and hosting alternatives, should carefully be analyzed and settled. Furthermore, devising a way for continued maintenance and replacement (life cycle management) of hardware and rethinking how we leverage local investments in ICT equipment manufacturing is also very critical. Creating a mechanism for recruiting and retaining competent staff in the HIS space is decisive, to say the least. Short of qualified and motivated staffing in the ecosystem, the goals set in all our national documents will be very difficult to attain. The private sector could bridge the gap in expertise and workforce both in the short and long term if the environment is conducive. The health sector needs to work on creating opportunities while making sure the private sector is given the time and support needed to grow into a reliable partner. Most importantly, beyond setting the strategies and refining policies, the actual implementation should be given due emphasis. 

Operationalizing the plans across regions with proper consultation and ensuring the same priorities are cascaded to the last mile is critical if we are to see a digitized health system in a rather not too distant future.

Written by Dr. Loko Abraham

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