Despite being a booming economy, Bangladesh is still facing hurdles to ensure healthcare facilities for all citizens, especially in rural areas. The occasional outbursts of health menace like the on-going dengue often erode the remaining public confidence in the national health system. It must, however, be also kept in mind that providing desired health services to all is a huge challenge for any government despite best of its good intentions.The country is home to 160 million people and majority of total population still live in rural areas. In addition, the number of urban poor including significant addition of climate refugees have been growing steadily and putting extra pressure on the existing health service providers. No doubt, the government has established many healthcare centres across the country. The community health centres established by the present government have been providing some of the basic health services to the rural population. Unfortunately, the urban poor do not have access to such primary health care facilities. The rural health centres, however, are yet to gain the required capacity, both in terms of human resources and other medical facilities to provide the best of the health services to the rural population.
The government is surely trying to alleviate the situation through various interventions. Apart from the government’s effort, private sector can also play a more effective role in improving the healthcare delivery system for the underprivileged. The socially responsible private sector interventions in partnership mode can indeed be very effective. Realising this potential role of the private sector, NeoSTAR Innovation – in association with UAE-based Bank Alfalah – is trying to improve quality of life of rural people through e-health services. The CSR contribution by this financial institution owes its inspiration from the related guidelines given by the central bank. The prime goal of this initiative is to help the government achieve ‘Goal-3: Good health and well-being’ of Sustainable Development Goals officially adopted by 193 countries in September 2015 at the United Nations.
According to WHO, e-health is the cost-effective and secure use of information communication technologies (ICT) in support of health and health-related services, including health-care services, health surveillance, health literature, health education, knowledge and research.
As a developing country Bangladesh has many constrains to ensure high-quality and affordable healthcare for all citizens. In response, both public and private sectors can collectively work to find out innovative approaches to eliminate the geographic and financial barriers to health.
It should be noted here that the implementation of Digital Bangladesh plan under the farsighted leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has created some new opportunities for providing health services. Nearly all areas of the country are now under high-speed internet coverage, mobile phone penetration rate has increased, cost of IT equipments has been declining and all these have created a conducive atmosphere to spur tech-aided health services in Bangladesh.
I particularly want to thank the authorities of Bank Alfalah for demonstrating its social responsibility in facilitating e-health service for poor and marginal people of the country. This bank is supporting NeoSTAR Innovation to implement an e-health initiative across the country under its CSR programme.
I have come to know that a significant number of people (both children and adults) have been getting direct benefit from this digital health service. NeoSTAR Innovation provides e-health service through ‘smart health camp’. Local NGOs in different areas of the country help the technology company to organise health camps. These NGOs offer essential local infrastructures in addition to volunteers (e.g. meeting places, equipment) and mobilise people for health camps.
Through videoconference a senior doctor from Dhaka directly investigates patients and prescribes medicines as well. After completing patient consultation and taking other health-related information (body weight, blood pressure, blood sugar etc.) the doctor uses software to write e-prescription. When field staffs receive e-prescription then they take steps to print it and provide it to particular patient along with essential medicines. It takes only several minutes to complete the entire process. Participants of e-health camp do not pay any amount for the service.
Basically, women, children, farmers and climate victims are the main target groups of this initiative. While talking to Edward Apurba Singha, CEO of NeoSTAR Innovation, the author came to know that an interesting bondage has been developed between the technology providers and the recipient of the health services. He further said to me, “We mainly try to organise smart health camp in areas where people have little or no knowledge about computer. To some people it is an incomparable experience. People generally love to meet doctor directly. But we make it virtually for them. And we see deep interest to meet a doctor who stays miles apart from them. Voices of common people echo their confidence to get solution for their problems. We have removed the barrier between human and machine. No doubt it is our unique achievement”.
Obviously, only few health camps will not the change the present landscape of health sector. But it can create scope for transformation by developing awareness among the masses. Bangladesh has achieved remarkable success to control communicable diseases. But there is a link between economic progress and non-communicable diseases. The country has to face this emerging threat. E-health can play a pivotal role in creating awareness about non-communicable diseases.
I am pleased to know that NeoSTAR Innovation is working on a sustainable model of e-health. But they need active support from different sectors of the country to materialise their idea. Other entrepreneurs including banks can come forward to facilitate e-health activities as they have been thriving on the participation of the community as service takers. Today’s businesses must care more for the stakeholders rather than their shareholders. The SDGs campaign clearly highlights this global compact.
As a part of this campaign for greater social responsibility the private sector entrepreneurs will have to focus more on health problems of rural people. Without improving quality of their life it will not be possible for us to achieve sustainable development. No doubt e-heath is a right solution to make healthcare service accessible and affordable to many. We certainly need good finance with adequate social responsibility as has been demonstrated in this innovative collaborative effort. We need many more such partnership efforts for greater good of the society.
The author is a noted economist and a former Governor of Bangladesh Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]