World Health Organization launches Global Initiative on Digital Health

The World Health Organization Tuesday launched its new Global Initiative on Digital Health, a WHO managed network designed to “amplify and align resources” toward country-led digital health transformation. 

The organisation said the GIDH will strengthen collaboration and knowledge exchange and act as a vehicle to implement the Global Strategy on Digital Health 2020-2025. It will also aim to assess and prioritise member country needs for sustainable digital health transformation, build capacity and converge efforts to encourage local development, maintenance and adaptation of digital health technologies to continuously changing needs. 

In an executive summary that accompanied the launch, WHO said: “Over 120 World Health Organization (WHO) Member States have developed a national digital health policy or strategy, although many of these are not costed or propose robust architectural plans. 

“The acceleration of digital health transformation is also challenged by fragmentation in resource allocation and alignment to country needs, along with variable definitions and levels of quality of digital solutions.

“Countries are seeking support to move from product focused digital health initiatives to establishing national digital health infrastructure with the appropriate national competency to maintain and adapt – a recognised need for trusted and quality-assured technical support to address national digital health priorities, with government in the driver’s seat.” 

The initiative aims to address challenges including duplication of efforts and “products-focused” digital health transformation by focusing on four “foundational pillars”.

These include a country needs tracker to ensure digital health investments reflect national priorities and a country resource portal to identify both traditional and innovative resource opportunities, increasing transparency, reducing the risk of duplication and allowing for a standards-based analysis of gaps.  

The other two pillars consist of a transformation toolbox, including quality-assured resources to strengthen country capacity and autonomy, and a convening and knowledge exchange that promote stronger collaboration and knowledge exchange across global, regional and national networks in digital health. 

Emphasis on data sharing and patient access

Speaking at a webinar hosted alongside the launch, Mathias Cormann, secretary general of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, said the GIDH could make particularly useful contributions to data sharing and improving patient access to digital tools. 

He observed that digital health tools offer potential to “enhance the effectiveness of our health systems to provide patients with better access to information and care and to strengthen our resilience to future public health emergencies.” 

At the same time, he noted that 30% of the world’s available data relates to health, yet less than 1% of that data is used in health care decision making. At least 14 OECD countries have introduced public application programming interfaces for health data to allow providers to develop new health management tools, he said, adding that these experiences and the lessons learned could help inform similar efforts in countries around the world. 

Improving patient access will also be crucial, he said. Although 23 out of 27 OECD countries report that patients have the capacity to view the data in their electronic health record, the organisation has determined that in many cases, that data isn’t available to all patients or health providers, and that there are limitations to its functionality. 

WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed the initiative and noted that WHO has been committed to using technology to improve health since its formation. 

The organisation, he noted, has already established a Department of Digital Health and Innovation to reinforce evidence-based guidance. It has also created a global digital health certification network, an open-source platform that currently allows more than 75 countries to bilaterally verify the authenticity of digital records and health certificates.

More recently, WHO launched guidance for member states on regulatory considerations for AI. The GIDH, he said, will allow the organisation to help countries achieve their digital transformation goals. 

“Some of the main challenges we face are fragmentation and overlap, driven by the proliferation of new digital tools, built without common standards, or lacking the support of a shared vision in a digital age,” he added.

“A carefully planned digital health future should be one where systems speak to one another, reducing the burden on workers and the people they serve. Governments need quality assurance, digital tools, and building blocks for local production and ownership of digital health solutions.” 

Back in early January the WHO issued new guidelines on “person-centred” HIV strategic information as part of its latest policy brief on digital health data.

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