Openness to innovation has proven key to Azerbaijan’s response to the pandemic, paving the way for the digital transformation of healthcare

A blog by: Dr. Nabil Seyidov, Head of Health Policy and Planning Department, Public Health and Reforms Center, Ministry of Health of the Republic of Azerbaijan and Sandra Ismanovski, Head of Communications @UNDPAzerbaijan

Acting swiftly and adaptively while keeping the public informed and onside has been key for countries that have mounted an effective response to COVID-19. Applying the lessons learnt from those actions and policies that have proven effective will likewise be vital to staging a successful recovery and a safer future.

Amidst the many uncertainties still surrounding the virus and its variants, what has been clear from the outset is that this pandemic will bring radical long-term changes to healthcare and public health policies.

In Azerbaijan, as in other forward-thinking countries, these changes will be shaped by what has been learnt from this crisis to ensure a safer tomorrow — above all by harnessing the power of digital technologies to increase people’s access to healthcare.

Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Health was quick to adapt from the outset of the pandemic and has continued to be highly proactive and open to innovative ways of delivering services in unprecedented circumstances.

Working closely with UNDP’s Accelerator Lab, the Ministry has explored and implemented solutions to the crisis that look set to become part of the ‘new normal’.

Our earliest joint innovations were launched within weeks of the pandemic, including the development of two ‘coronavirus bots’.

The first of these informed the public about the safest course of action to take if they developed symptoms, while the second bot was designed to ensure people had 24/7 access to the latest reliable and officially approved information on the virus.

In addition to helping counter dangerous misinformation, the two bots helped answer over 200,000 queries from citizens during the peak of the pandemic. As in the case of other innovative responses to the crisis, these bots can easily be adapted for other purposes to ensure access to accurate and up-to-date health information in the future.

To support frontline healthcare workers, meanwhile, the Ministry of Health and UNDP developed an e-platform providing free online training courses and programmes leading to certification in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 and other acute respiratory infections.

Over 2,300 healthcare professionals have already enrolled on the 70 existing courses on the platform, with the Azerbaijan Medical University, Public Health and Reforms Center and Postgraduate Training Institute for Physicians now developing additional courses and educational resources.

Like other pandemic-related innovations with potential for much wider application, the e-platform is rapidly expanding beyond its initial scope.

Azerbaijan’s economic and engineering universities have already signed on for participation on the platform, and a new partnership with the Ministry of Education and Young Teacher’s Association is planned. This partnership will help enroll 3,000 teachers in 70 new courses that will help prepare them better for online and digital education.

Private companies have also expressed an interest in including their own courses on the platform that could help build the skills of their current and future employees.

We see this platform as developing to become a national provider of massive open online courses like Coursera for Azerbaijan, further serving as a model that can easily be expanded to other countries.

Another important innovation launched in response to the pandemic with enormous potential for future expansion is the ‘Video Doktor’ app.

Initially launched to enable remote medical consultations and help reduce the need for close contact between healthcare workers and patients during the pandemic, the app was first piloted in 15 polyclinics throughout Baku and has since expanded to include 47 clinics, including major national hospitals. It is currently being used by 430 patients and 147 physicians.

The Video Doktor app has paved the way for the large-scale introduction of telemedicine in Azerbaijan in the future, saving citizens money and time — especially for those living in rural areas, people with disabilities, and the elderly — and providing them with greater access to the best physicians and keeping doctors connected and allowing them to regularly exchange information.

All of these initially small-scale projects are contributing to a comprehensive digital transformation of Azerbaijan’s healthcare system.

And this transformation is being further supported and facilitated by a number of other current small projects.

Last month, for example, we successfully piloted a new e-survey and marketing tool for healthcare with the capacity to design various questionnaires, conduct complex surveys and data analysis, with instant visualizations of collected data.

A number of organizations have already expressed an interest in using the app, and the Ministry of Health and WHO just started administering a vaccine efficiency study through the app.

We have also prototyped a first platform on medications, designed in collaboration with the Ministry of Health’s Drug Registration Agency, providing citizens and medical professionals with updated information and guidelines related to all medications registered in Azerbaijan.

The portal will be integrated with the medical records of hospitals and clinics to be used as a quick reference tool.

The next major step in the digital transformation of healthcare in Azerbaijan is an ‘e-prescription system’ we are currently developing that will connect physicians, patients and pharmacies to ensure safer and faster prescribing and medication dispensing practices. We will be testing this system with 20 pharmacies in Baku over the coming weeks, with long-term plans for nationwide implementation.

One of the many important lessons the world has learnt over the difficult period we have lived through since early 2020 is that those countries which have made investments and technological progress in their healthcare, social care and education systems were better positioned to deal with the pandemic.

As a country aspiring to become a global leader of the fourth industrial revolution, Azerbaijan has proven itself to be on a fast track — willing and able to learn from changes accelerated by the pandemic and to apply these reforms to deliver sustained improvements in public services for its citizens.