Meet Dr. David Akpan: Receipt of the 2023 Marc Mitchell Award for Leadership and Innovation

Dr. David Akpan is the Deputy Director, Programs, and Impact at eHealth Africa (eHA). He was awarded the Marc Mitchell Leadership and Innovation Award at the 2023 Global Digital Health Forum. He is an astute enthusiast of digital health, playing a pivotal role in healthcare delivery efficiency and achieving the universal healthcare targets. We interviewed him to learn more about his work.

Tell us about yourself and your career journey in digital health

I have been in development work for over 16 years in Nigeria and other African countries. I started development work at the community level, working with several local organisations to increase access to health information and healthcare for vulnerable populations. What became apparent during my work in the community was the substantial factors that limit access to healthcare. I was motivated to pursue a career in digital health because of my desire to facilitate access to quality health services. Digital health provided a strong avenue to increase access to healthcare in a more sustainable manner. I have worked on numerous models aimed at bringing health services closer to people to ensure that they access services whenever they need them.

Can you give a brief description of the initiative(s) that won you the Marc Mitchell Innovation and Leadership Award?

As the Deputy Director, Programs and Impact at eHealth Africa (eHA), I lead the design, implementation, and evaluation of all digital and public health projects in Africa. My role also includes leading strategic engagement and building new partnerships geared towards up-scaling the use of technological solutions to address public health challenges.

I supervised the optimization, development, and deployment of the Electronic Management of Immunization Data (EMID) System which currently serves as the National Database for Routine Immunization in Nigeria. I also supervise digital health innovations across 19 countries in Africa. In 2022, I pioneered two Digital & Public Health discussion platforms namely INSIGHTS monthly public health webinar series (16 series achieved since July 2022) and the annual National Digital Health Learning Forum (first edition in July 2023). These initiatives brough together critical partners in digital health across Africa to share insights on strengthening digital health systems in Africa.

I also co-managed the development of a blood crisis management solution (BISKIT) which is designed to monitor end-to-end blood management process from the donor down to when the blood is being utilised and with capability of also enhancing adverse effect monitoring by tracing samples back to the source donor. This solution has streamlined blood management through effectively tracking blood management logistic processes, storage, and safety.

Before I joined eHA, I led the development and deployment of an end-to-end digital case management solution (CHILD Monitor) aimed at providing healthcare services to about 120,000 orphans and vulnerable children across three states in Nigeria to improve paediatric HIV case management and follow-up in Nigeria. CHILD Monitor was designed to enable service providers to effectively assess the needs of households in real time, matched households with appropriate services and effectively tracked how these services are provided and evaluated against service benchmarks. Through this digital health solution, we significantly reduced, and, in some cases, closed the gap around linkage and referral by promptly assigning households to available services within the community. CHILD Monitor was recognized and awarded by USAID Nigeria in September 2023 as an ‘Excellent Innovative Digital Solution’ contributing to improving paediatric service coverage and outcomes for Orphans and Vulnerable Children (OVC) programs in Nigeria.

Many initiatives were considered for this award; what set yours apart from the rest?

I may not have insights to other initiatives considered for this year’s award but certainly I can attribute my consideration for the award around consistency inched on years of innovative digital solutions or initiatives. Secondly, the diversity in digital heath innovations spanning in several areas case management, information management systems, value/supply chain, thought leadership and research may also be another rationale. Finally, my expertise in leading successful digital solutions demonstrated through the previous awards, certainly made me stand out.

How has your membership of the Global Digital Health Network helped you in your work?

Being part of the Global Digital Health Network has enabled me to gain access to diverse knowledge and expertise. I have been able to leverage lessons and case studies implemented in different settings. The advantage for me is that it’s an opportunity not to duplicate any form of digital solution. Rather, the Network has created prospects for scaling-up solutions that have already worked elsewhere. I also appreciate sharing ideas and insights with professionals from across the world in solving day-to-day challenges in this space as well as shaping the future of digital health that continues to grow exponentially.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

My 5 years goals include investing in further capacity in key aspects of digital health to lead regional initiatives on improving access to healthcare services and information to all populations including persons with disabilities. Relatively, I am working on positioning self to be a viable digital health thought leader influencing key decisions and strategic actions towards getting Africa to a fully matured hub for sustainable digital health innovations. I am also committed to have completed the set up of a Digital Health Training Hub which invest resources in building capacity of the next generation of young tech/digital health innovators.

What lessons would you like to share with the broader digital health community?

I am particularly passionate about digital health optimization. It is important that as the digital health community, we strengthen our efforts around developing digital solutions that are interoperable with other solutions and systems. We should learn from and look at systems that link with each other. Strengthening interoperability will increase efficiency, sustainability and significantly reduce duplication of solutions.

About the Marc Mitchell Award

In 2019, the Global Digital Health Network announced the launch of the Marc Mitchell Leadership and Innovation award, recognizing exceptional individuals early in their digital health career who have demonstrated a commitment to making quality care accessible in all settings, especially in low- and middle-income countries, using digital health. The Global Digital Health Network chose to honour Marc’s memory with the 2021 annual award to inspire and nurture health professionals whose resolve and creative ideas using digital technology are improving the delivery of quality health care.

Dr. Marc Mitchell was the founder of D-tree International and a pioneer in the field of digital health, focused on improving the quality of healthcare and health systems using digital technologies.  One of the main challenges Marc worked to address was the development of electronic clinical decision support systems to replace traditional, bulky, expensive, and largely unused paper-based algorithms. At a time when apps were just emerging, Dr. Mitchell saw the potential for digital technology on mobile devices to both provide step-by-step guidance to frontline health workers as they met with clients and integrate that care into a comprehensive health care system. These tools led to improved clinical protocol adherence and better health outcomes—and provided some of the earliest evidence showing the positive impact of adopting digital technologies in the health sector.

Marc began his career in international health in the 1970s in Tanzania, where he worked as a paediatrician. He later served as Assistant Secretary of Health in Papua New Guinea, advised the Government of Indonesia in its family planning efforts, and consulted with WHO on its digital and mobile health programmes. Over the course of his career, he lived and worked in Tanzania, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Mexico, and Myanmar, and supported projects in over 40 countries. He was also on the faculty at Harvard School of Public Health and was dedicated to teaching and mentoring the next generation of public health leaders. Dr Mitchell’s work in digital health was guided by his passionate belief that all people everywhere should have access to high-quality health care.