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WHO digital health initiative

This article describes the WHO digital health initiative to harness digital solutions to address inequities and improve health service delivery.
Background pattern of various intra cellular components
© London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Digital technologies have now become an important part of our daily lives. Throughout the pandemic, despite lock downs and border closures, we have never been more connected, thanks to innovations in digital and communications technologies that has been advancing at unprecedented speed and scale. However, the application of these technologies to improve human health remains largely untapped. It remains for the public and private sectors to work together to harness the power of digital solutions to address inequities and improve health service delivery.

The WHO Digital Health Initiative:

Young person holding an electronic device

The global strategy on digital health 2020–2025 was endorsed by the Seventy-third World Health Assembly in decision WHA73(28) (2020). https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/documents/gs4dhdaa2a9f352b0445bafbc79ca799dce4d.pdf

Cover of the WHO global strategy on digital health 2020–2025

Vision

The vision of the global strategy is to improve health for everyone, everywhere by accelerating the development and adoption of appropriate, accessible, affordable, scalable and sustainable person-centric digital health solutions to prevent, detect and respond to epidemics and pandemics, developing infrastructure and applications that enable countries to use health data to promote health and well-being, and to achieve the health-related Sustainable Development Goals and the triple billion targets of WHO’s Thirteenth General Programme of Work, 2019–2023.

Purpose

The purpose of this global strategy is to strengthen health systems through the application of digital health technologies for consumers, health professionals, health care providers and industry towards empowering patients and achieving the vision of health for all.

Principles

The four guiding principles aim to orient the global strategy towards the appropriate and sustainable adoption of digital health technologies within the context of national health sector and health strategies.

  1. Acknowledge that institutionalization of digital health in the national health system requires a decision and commitment by countries
  2. Recognize that successful digital health initiatives require an integrated strategy
  3. Promote the appropriate use of digital technologies for health
  4. Recognize the urgent need to address the major impediments faced by least-developed countries implementing digital health technologies

Strategic objectives

  1. Promote global collaboration and advance the transfer of knowledge on digital health
  2. Advance the implementation of national digital health strategies
  3. Strengthen governance for digital health at global, regional and national levels
  4. Advocate people-centred health systems that are enabled by digital health

Here are some excerpts from the Global Strategy on Digital Health 2020-2025:

“The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development highlights that the spread of information and communications technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide and to develop knowledge societies.”
“Digital transformation of health care can be disruptive; however, technologies such as the Internet of things, virtual care, remote monitoring, artificial intelligence, big data analytics, blockchain, smart wearables, platforms, tools enabling data exchange and storage and tools enabling remote data capture and the exchange of data and sharing of relevant information across the health ecosystem creating a continuum of care have proven potential to enhance health outcomes by improving medical diagnosis, data-based treatment decisions, digital therapeutics, clinical trials, self-management of care and person-centred care as well as creating more evidence-based knowledge, skills and competence for professionals to support health care.”
“Digital health should be an integral part of health priorities and benefit people in a way that is ethical, safe, secure, reliable, equitable and sustainable. It should be developed with principles of transparency, accessibility, scalability, replicability, interoperability, privacy, security and confidentiality.”
“This global strategy sets out a vision, strategic objectives, a framework for action and implementation principles to advance digital health, globally and within countries at national and subnational levels, that will contribute to building an internationally connected digital health system with consideration of potential risks. It aims to encourage international collaboration and to support countries in their national programmes towards improved health care service delivery, implementing national health strategies, promoting research and development and working towards achieving universal health coverage and the health-related Sustainable Development Goals.”
It is useful to define some of the terms used in the Global Strategy:
Appropriate use of digital technologies: Information and communications technology that takes into account safety, ethical use, cost-effectiveness and affordability and is people-centred, evidence-based, effective, efficient, sustainable, inclusive, equitable and contextualized.
Big data: The emerging use of rapidly-collected, complex data in such unprecedented quantities that terabytes (1012 bytes), petabytes (1015 bytes) or even zettabytes (1021 bytes) of storage may be required. The unique properties of big data are defined by four dimensions: volume, velocity, variety and veracity. As more information is accruing at an accelerating pace, both volume and velocity are increasing.
Digital public good: They can be defined as open-source software, open data, open artificial intelligence models, open standards and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable international and domestic laws, standards and best practices and do no harm.
eHealth: The cost-effective and secure use of information and communications technologies in support of health and health-related fields, including health care services, health surveillance, health literature, and health education, knowledge and research.
Health information system: A system that integrates data collection, processing, reporting, and use of the information necessary for improving health service effectiveness and efficiency through better management at all levels of health services.

Implementation

“The approaches for implementing the global strategy on digital health will depend on the national context, national priorities for health and well-being as well as digital infrastructure and workforce needs and capacity in each country. Not all policy options and actions may be relevant, necessary or require immediate attention. Each Member State should consider its own health priorities, its current digital health situation, the planned or aspirational future state of digital health, resource constraints, capacity limitations, risks and other influential factors.”

© London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
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