By Kenji Kanasugi, Ambassador of Japan to Indonesia and Norimasa Shimomura, UNDP Indonesia Resident Representative.


As Indonesia ramps up its COVID-19 vaccination drive, health worker Magdalene Pelamonia continues delivering vaccines in portable refrigerators, with strict temperature controls, to communities on the eastern island of Ambon. Her mission is centred on a digital tracking system called SMILE that ensures the efficacy of vaccines. Many other health workers have benefited from the digital tool, which has reduced vaccine verification and stock checking to minutes rather than hours.

The 36-year old health worker Magdalene may be at the forefront of a digital transformation that has improved the efficiency of health-care delivery to Indonesia's 274 million people. But is enough being done to digitalize Indonesia's health sector as a whole?

Indonesia’s Ministry of Health on this week launched a blueprint on the digitalization of the health sector, in partnership with UNDP and funding from the Government of Japan. The blueprint comes at an opportune time as the country pushes its COVID-19 vaccination drive to the much-needed herd immunity level. The blueprint also reflects Indonesia's growing urgency to strengthen health services as part of the SDG agenda.  

These digital health interventions are aligned with Indonesia’s health sector priorities to deal with disease burden, improve care quality, improve maternal and child health, and support Indonesia's health system transformation as a whole. Ultimately, the blueprint will benefit patients seeking access to healthcare, as well as healthcare workers in providing services, and health system managers.

At the same time, the blueprint has been developed by fully reflecting on the lessons from similar experiences of the past.  That is to say that any such strategy is not about developing another digital application, but that these information and technological solutions can only be effective if they are built on a vision for policy and operational enhancements driven by strong political commitment. 

For example, there is a need to create a truly integrated and comprehensive system on citizen information that will allow the government to make sound decisions in addressing health-related challenges. Or, as the blueprint notes, different Ministries are currently using different platforms to store information on state pensions and health care. Furthermore, there is a fundamental need to increase the availability and quality of health data and information to improve the quality of health services. As such, improved accuracy of the data and information will greatly enhance the capacity of the government in handling the current and future pandemic situations.

Another key requirement is stronger regulatory frameworks that can safeguard digital information on patients along with stronger transparency of data in the health sector. Therefore, digitalization in the health sector needs reinforcement on policy and institutional readiness, as well as adequate human capacity both at central and provincial levels.

The implementation of the blueprint will require an increase in digital connectivity which calls for greater private sector involvement. According to the Ministry of Health, the private sector accounts for only two percent of health-care investment, indicating a huge opportunity in public-private partnership. Other innovative SDG financing schemes may be put to use for this purpose, including expansion of public financing for the health sector and impact investment.  We believe that innovative financing solutions, in addition to the government's USD 2.5 billion budget allocation to expand digital connection, have the potential to fill financial gaps. Therefore, stronger multi-stakeholder collaboration is required, particularly with the private sector.

Improving the digital infrastructure will also address Indonesia’s digital divide. According to the World Bank, approximately 53 percent of Indonesia’s population have internet access. 47 percent of those who are “off the grid” include marginalized communities in remote areas, poor to vulnerable urban families including children and women in underdeveloped areas – all of whom require quality health services most. As administrative process such as registration and medicine verification go digital, those who are not connected digitally could be at risk of not receiving direct health services.

Innovation is the driving force behind success. Hence, constant innovation is another critical component for putting the digital health national strategy into action. As a country that values science and technology, Japan is constantly looking for new ways to innovate digital know-how. In Japan, both the public and private sector have been promoting digital services in the health and medical sector. For example, Japan has advanced medical care by utilizing high-definition cameras and sensors, and is now promoting R&D on telemedicine for more efficient medical service. In addition, the number of people who use health care applications on their mobile devices has increased in recent years. Digital technology is changing the medical environment in Japan.

Digital service in the health and medical sector is supported by the digitalization of the whole society. Japan aims to ensure that every citizen in Japan can benefit from digital technology. As the first step, Japan needs to promote digitalization in government agencies and realize integrated information systems in the public sector. For that reason, the Japanese government established a Digital Agency in September 2021. The Digital Agency is expected to progress digitalization policy such as formulating a fundamental plan for the digitalization, developing digital personal identification system and integrating and optimizing online services and digital infrastructure, with the goal of improving public services and digitalization in society.

The blueprint on digital health marks a milestone in the Indonesian government's ambition to leading the digital health transformation. Moving forward, Japan and UNDP stand ready to join hands in innovation with Indonesia toward health digitalization.

Back on Ambon island, health worker Magdalene says she has never witnessed such a swift transition in her 15 years in the health sector as a result of the adoption of the digital tool SMILE. The next phase is to build a national digital health system that is transparent, interconnected, and inclusive to enhance health services throughout this vast country.


This opinon piece was originally published in The Jakarta Post.


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