Digital social innovation: the argument for healthcare

Harnessing digital technologies to improve healthcare and focus innovation towards more social ends.

© 6over6

Personal health apps, AI diagnosis, and 3D printed prosthetics are all part of the new reality in the healthcare sector. The healthcare ecosystem, with its increasing focus on patient-centric solutions, is at the forefront of Digital Social Innovation.

Using language and strategies from Digital Social Innovation can reaffirm your social engagement and improve your role as a health and social innovator. 

What is Digital Social Innovation?

Digital Social Innovation (DSI) refers to the invention of technology operating for the benefit of society, and with the aim of creating digital solutions for social impact.

DSI lies at the intersection of three concepts: digital technologies, innovation and social impact. There are other intersections between these three elements as shown on the visual below.

Social Innovation is innovation with impact, whether it’s creating a new framework, logistic or organization, to solve a social or environmental issue. A strategic collaboration between businesses and end-users, or local health practitioners, is an example of social innovation.

Tech Social Impact uses technology as a way to maximise social impact of an existing program or initiative. Using robots to produce more vaccines and distribute them to at-risk groups during the COVID-19 pandemic, is an example of a Tech Social Impact.

Digital Social Innovation is different in its approach: the objective is to use technologies throughout the innovation process; from ideation to conceptualizing and rollout of new solutions. Digital social innovation technologies and methods are by definition, you guessed it, social. Therefore, they need to consult local communities and various health stakeholders throughout the decision process, to ensure the solution takes its starting point in the problem.

The relevance for healthcare

Healthcare can use DSI as a new innovation roadmap to present innovation products and platforms more efficiently. It is an innovative strategy that understands technology as a solution to a holistic social problem. With large gaps in healthcare ecosystems and lack of access to health services, DSI can enable the healthcare sector to become more inclusive, affordable, and effective.

Using language and strategies from DSI can reaffirm your social engagement and improve your role as a health and social actor.

Even if some healthcare companies already engage in social impact, it might be as an operational consequence of their innovation. With DSI, tech innovation is embedded in the social system it has an influence on.  How can this be applied to healthcare?

Start with an institutional void

To create digital social innovation in the healthcare ecosystem, the first step is to identify an institutional void, or a social challenge that can be solved with the use of new technologies. 

Institutional voids are “spaces” in the public sphere for improvement, because of social issues (e.g., racism or discrimination), a deficit of government action, or lack of access to technologies.

These voids are not only focused on health outcomes , but can be found in problems associated with  housing, environment, culture, or discrimination. Technology allows us to better align people, interests, and organizations in social and health objectives that were unreachable before.

Case: Identifying an institutional void that can be filled with technology:

© 6over6 platform

An estimated 2.5 billion people need vision correction, but lack access to it. In most developing countries, and in many communities in developed economies, there is a lack of access to education and treatment for vision correction: in many cases, there is no institutional support for diagnosis. 

Most of these people have something in common: they own a smartphone. 6over6, an Israeli tech startup, identified poor vision diagnosis as a void to fill with their own product: GlassesOn, a mobile app designed to measure the refractive error of the eye and to prescribe glasses or contact lenses. 

Applying technology to a Institutional Void

The social part of DSI entails developing strategic partnerships across society and sectors to deliver patient-centered solutions. 

There is a large network of possible partners in the healthcare sector. To gain clarity on where in the healthcare ecosystem you can find partners and align incentives, start by mapping the ecosystem. Read more and get the right tools for ecosystem mapping in our Launching Health Innovations report.

In DSI, the key partners are patients and healthcare professionals as they are most often the direct beneficiaries. These stakeholders should take an active role in the innovation process. Other pharma companies and research institutes can also be considered key stakeholders to involve, as they provide different perspectives and expertise.

Case: using technology in a social way:

© K'ept Health platform

Sheena Franklin, Founder of K’ept Health recognised there was a problem with modern dermatology: institutional racism. There is a lack of skin color representation in dermatology education; in 2020 only 4-18% of textbooks included images of dark skin in the US. Misdiagnosis in conditions like Lyme disease and melanoma is more common in people of color, which results in higher mortality for black and other racialized minorities. 

After discussing with and listening to hundreds women of color about their skin concerns, Sheena developed a solution designed to tackle these issues. She partnered with dermatologists associations to create an AI-powered app that helps patients identify and track their skin concerns, as well as book appointments with doctors online and in person.

Resulting in institutional and systemic change

DSIs aim to fundamentally reshape social systems that perpetuate injustice or inequality. The goal is to collectively transform and create a new and healthier reality for everyone. 

Technology can bring value to healthcare in the form of improved access for minorities and other communities. It can also allow for further personalization of health services and  community-building. Conducting research based on data from new DSIs can also be fundamental to start systems change in healthcare ecosystems.

Both of the cases presented above, GlassesOn and K’ept Health, created value for their communities; assisting patients and empowering them with knowledge and tools they did not have access to before. GlassesOn fundamentally changes cultural norms around access to vision treatment, while K’ept Health fights institutional racism in healthcare.

Filling the institutional void should create change in society that transcends any individual patient’s experience. 



Behavioral health design playbook

Interested in more healthcare innovation content? Check out our newest guide on applying behavioral design to healthcare to create innovative, patient-centric solutions.

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