A tale of 'politics and stars aligning': analysing the sustainability of scaled up digital tools for front-line health workers in India
BMJ Global Health
IntroductionIndia has become a lighthouse for large-scale digital innovation in the health sector, particularly for front-line health workers (FLHWs). However, among scaled digital health solutions, ensuring sustainability remains elusive. This study explores the factors underpinning scale-up of digital health solutions for FLHWs in India, and the potential implications of these factors for sustainability.MethodsWe assessed five FLHW digital tools scaled at the national and/or state level in
... ia. We conducted in-depth interviews with implementers, technology and technical partners (n=11); senior government stakeholders (n=5); funders (n=1) and evaluators/academics (n=3). Emergent themes were grouped according to a broader framework that considered the (1) digital solution; (2) actors; (3) processes and (4) context.ResultsThe scale-up of digital solutions was facilitated by their perceived value, bounded adaptability, support from government champions, cultivation of networks, sustained leadership and formative research to support fit with the context and population. However, once scaled, embedding digital health solutions into the fabric of the health system was hampered by challenges related to transitioning management and ownership to government partners; overcoming government procurement hurdles; and establishing committed funding streams in government budgets. Strong data governance, continued engagement with FLHWs and building a robust evidence base, while identified in the literature as critical for sustainability, did not feature strongly among respondents. Sustainability may be less elusive once there is more consensus around the roles played between national and state government actors, implementing and technical partners and donors.ConclusionThe use of digital tools by FLHWs offers much promise for improving service delivery and health outcomes in India. However, the pathway to sustainability is bespoke to each programme and should be planned from the outset by investing in people, relationships and service delivery adjustments to navigate the challenges involved given the dynamic nature of digital tools in complex health systems.