Why Digital Health Takes a Village: The Importance of “Non-Techies”

In viewing posters, listening to sessions, and participating in interactive workshops at the Global Digital Health Forum in December, I was struck by the wide spectrum of work presented. These ranged from brand new proof-of-concept tests, to toolkits and frameworks for achieving scale, to established interventions that are growing and iterating. It feels like the field has matured and that digital health interventions should be a standard tool in our public health bag of tricks.

This made me wonder whether the larger global health community has realized that this transition has taken place. Over the last five to ten years, public health program managers and experts have turned to digital health folks to ask them for a “shiny new idea” to test out as a small component of a project; yet, we, digital health practitioners, are talking to each other about scaling and institutionalizing established systems. Digital health tools are still seen by our colleagues as an add-on to an overall technical approach rather than as a critical component to achieving public health outcomes.

That disconnect underlines that not only is there a benefit but there is also an imperative to better familiarize program-focused people with the current state of digital health. Seeing the plethora of tools and guidance documents presented at the forumincluding the Digital Health Atlas, the HIS Interoperability Maturity Model, and the soon-to-be-released Digital Health Investment Guide and Digital Health Taxonomy, it is clear that many of these will be most useful to people who do not spend their days geeking out about the newest biometric scanner.

But how do we bridge that gap?

I believe that the secret is to transition self-professed “non-techies”those that do not have a background in technology but are strong in health programmingto “tech enthusiasts” public health practitioners who understand the benefit of technology for development programs. I was happy to see that more program-focused JSI colleagues made it to the forum this year and had the chance to hear how broad the reach of digital health has become. I am confident that as these self-professed non-techies transition to becoming tech-enthusiasts, they will be the most effective ambassadors to the chiefs of party, program managers, and monitoring and evaluation advisors who make decisions about program design that will allow for systemization and adoption of digital tools at the scale needed to achieve true impact.  

Increasing the connection between the techies and the tech-enthusiasts-to-be is a crucial aspect of JSI’s digital health strategy. This is why we have spent the last year working on changing how we, as an institution, describe who is and can be a digital health expert. Our Applied Technology Center (which just celebrated its first birthday!) provides advice, support, and technical assistance to the organization on all questions digital health.

Our team, though it has been growing, is small. We don’t have enough people or the right expertise sitting formally on the Center to answer every question from every project on every topic from DHIS2 server installation to WhatsApp peer mentor groups. Instead, we’ve reached out to JSI  staff working on hundreds of projects across more than 60 countries and 50 states to ask: who is using digital tools and expertise in their work? We’ve found over 200 “techies,” and counting, sitting across the organization.

We’ve collaborated with all these techies to define JSI’s six core areas of expertise in Applied TechnologyHealth Information Systems, Mobile Solutions, Data Services, Technology for Logistics, Channeling Content, and Building Blocks. Since the techies already sit within projects and offices scattered around the world, they are best placed to rub shoulders with the non-techies and inspire them to become tech-enthusiasts. By connecting this wide-reaching army of techies to the core Center team and to each other, we hope to give them better access to the evidence, tools, best practices, and innovative ideas they need to do so.

We are just getting started but we’re already getting more tech-related questions from non-techie colleagues, so we think we’re on the right track. We’ll see how many tech-enthusiasts we can count among the attendees of the next Global Digital Health Forum!

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