Recent years have seen a swift movement to digitalise the provision of health care globally. The use of data-intensive technology now spans the healthcare sector, from health apps, electronic medical records, to smart supply chain management to drones delivery of medication, to automated diagnostics, and much more. And the push for tech solutions to healthcare delivery during the Covid-19 pandemic wasn't different.

What's the problem?

While technology can help and contribute to improving the rights of people, including the right to healthcare, it comes with risks. This is especially true if tech 'solutions' are not built with people's privacy and real needs being prioritised. Or if the motivation to build digitalised systems to begin with is improperly incentivised, or is built by actors with hidden agendas.

Advancements in technology and data processing have allowed for ever-increasing powers to collect, process, and gather intelligence. These powers become especially prominent in the reproductive and maternal care sectors.

At the same time, it's important to highlight that women do not enjoy health rights equally. In addition to privacy concerns, woman experience numerous violations in exercising their right to healthcare - as evidenced by unacceptably high maternal mortality and morbidity rates around the world.

Examples of the digitalisation of services in the reproductive and maternal care sectors range from facilitating scheduling through SMS, remote access to care and counselling, health workers using a mobile phone to track an individual pregnant mother over the cycle of pregnancy, or a child over his/her cycle of immunisation, the use of mobile applications, sensors, wearable devices, and more.

What's the solution?

It is clear that poor consideration of privacy and equality protections in these kinds of technologies could have a detrimental impact on people and the enjoyment of people's fundamental rights.

There is no question that technology can help governments to ensure effective access and delivery of reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health services. But adequate safeguards are needed to mitigate risks and to ensure the roles and obligations of different stakeholders are complied with.

For example, often the deployment of digital health initiatives is not accompanied at both the policy and operational levels with adequate legal and regulatory protections for data governance that impact human rights and gender equality.

As with many misguided and ill-prepared digital solutions, the failure to consider these elements makes beneficiaries of the services vulnerable to exploitation and exclusion.

In addition, some of the shortcomings in the deployment of digital healthcare initiatives have not foreseen new concerns emerging with digitisation. One example of such concerns is the heightened risk of visibility and tracking of patients. This risk is further exacerbated when patient data is combined with large-scale identification systems, which can lead to vast intelligence being created as a result. Another example is the failure to understand and respond to the complex infrastructural requirements of such initiatives including access to secure, reliable internet.

As governments around the world continue to embrace digital innovations to help progressively realise social, economic and cultural rights, including for sexual and reproductive healthcare, privacy and equality considerations must be paramount.

What is PI doing?

This is an area which PI and many of our global partners are increasingly worried about. This is especially the case in contexts where government and corporate surveillance rampant and not effectively regulated.

We are advocating for changes to be made to these systems and for the development of future systems to take a human rights-based approach. Like in many other sectors, technology can help and contribute to improving the rights of people. But with it also come risks, especially if a system is poorly designed, whether intentionally or not.

As access to reproductive healthcare becomes even more digitalised, companies and governments must ensure that the digital systems are built with people's human rights considered and protected.