Bangladesh is expected to be the next destination for global big tech investments in facilitating digital health services, thanks to the country's "strong tracking record in e-health policies and practices", says the World Bank.
The country's strong political support for digital health strategy, especially for e-health standards and interoperable health information exchange platforms, has influenced the rapid proliferation of such initiatives in the country, the global lender says in a report titled "The Converging Technology Revolution and Human Capital Potential and Implications for South Asia" released Wednesday.
The Bangladesh government's initiatives towards digital health services can be traced back from the earlier years of Internet use in the country when the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) published the Digital Health Guide Book 2009.
Dr Ahmed Mushtaque Raza Chowdhury, convener of the Bangladesh Health Watch, told The Business Standard, "I think the World Bank report properly reflects the country's digital health services. This is because Bangladesh's private and public sectors have been receiving investments in e-health and m-health for a long time."
He said, "We have founded the Public Health and Informatics department in Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation. Then, we started a Master's programme in health informatics at Bangladesh University of Health Science. Brac has been working on mobile health as well."
The former vice-chair of Brac was delighted to mention, "For the past 20 years we have been actively working with this sector. We have not only been able to develop the capacity to facilitate e-health, but also have made both technical and practical uses of it."
He said, "Technical and practical uses of e-health must go hand in hand to make these digital health services effective. Therefore, we have been focusing on getting investments for both of them.
"Looking back at our efforts, I can say that we have done very well."
The World Bank report highlights that the availability of digital health services in Bangladesh alone is not sufficient and that the key challenge is to overcome the underlying socioeconomic barriers to their use.
Bangladesh's ability to articulate health needs and to afford the required resources for digital health services are still in question.
Dr Ahmed Mushtaque Raza said, "We need to consider the information divide that has been existing in the country. It must be accessible to everyone from urban to remote areas of the country.
"Moreover, during the pandemic, we have seen significant changes in terms of adapting to digital health services and I believe that it will get more popular in the upcoming days."
The World Bank report says the country's achievements in e-government and innovation capabilities are more modest as it has the second-weakest business environment in South Asia.
It also mentions that the legal framework for data rights in Bangladesh is not strong.
Global big tech giants, such as Google, Microsoft and Tencent often invest in local technology start-ups, facilitating foreign direct research and development investments as well as technology and talent flows.
Currently, 70% of big global investments in the technology sector in 15 categories of digital health are made by the three tech companies, the report says.
The companies' investments also flowed to South Asia. For instance, at least 25% of Google's 57 digital health portfolio companies are actively working in India, and 33% have expanded into other parts of the region.
"Bangladesh is clearly the next destination", the report says.
Along with the country's strong track record in e-health policies and practices, Bangladesh also has local partners of tech giants like Amazon, Apple, IBM, GE, Cisco, Samsung, and Alibaba to conduct medical AI research, support clinical decisions, and expand telemedicine or directly serve customers.
Bangladesh's human capital challenges
In terms of research and development expenditures, Bangladesh accounts for only 0.2% of the total global expenditure while China does more than 23% and India 4%.
The World Bank states that there is no national social registry in Bangladesh which limits the ability to identify poor or vulnerable households and deliver cash quickly, however, the country is moving towards that direction.
Moreover, the gender gap remains a major concern in mobile phone ownership, which is the highest in India in South Asia, followed by Bangladesh and Pakistan.