WHO launches plan to advance digital heath systems

The aim is to align countries’ systems to global best practices, norms and standards.

A World Health Organisation initiative to accelerate equitable global access to digital health will be beneficial for Australia’s technology industry, says an expert.

George Margelis – chair of the Aged Care Industry Information Technology Council – told Australian Ageing Agenda, the WHO’s Global Initiative on Digital Health, which launched online at 2pm Central European Time on Tuesday, “is potentially a commercial opportunity for Australian software vendors giving them the opportunity to expand their market and thus fund further development. It also provides opportunities for a larger regional digital health workforce – which can have flow-on benefits.”

A WHO-managed “network of networks”, the aim of the initiative is to leverage existing evidence, tools and learnings to develop and strengthen interoperable digital health systems worldwide to align them to global best practices, norms and standards.

George Margelis

“It is important for Australia to be engaged in such global initiatives,” said Mr Margelis. “Despite reports to the contrary, we bat well above our weight in digital health and have a very big opportunity to provide solutions to developing economies in the region. Also, the region will be critical to our workforce challenges so it is beneficial for us to have a regional digitally skilled workforce at our disposal.”

The GIDH also aims to support the Global Strategy on Digital Health 2020-2025 – a framework of action for promoting digital health at the global, regional and national levels.

While more than 120 WHO member states have developed a national digital health policy or strategy, many aren’t considered robust.

As the WHO notes in its executive summary of the GIDH: “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.”

Covid-19 propelled the rapid deployment and scale-up of digital technologies and hastened countries’ appetite for digital health transformation, says the WHO.

“A global platform which can respond to the complex digital health ecosystem by aligning investments, strengthening the enabling environment and enhancing quality assured technical support while promoting countries’ autonomy in their digital health transformation journeys, is therefore needed.”

Over the next five years, the GIDH will aim to advance digital health transformation worldwide through a focus on four foundational pillars:

Source: WHO
  • Country Needs Tracker – ensuring digital health investments are informed by country priorities
  • Country Resource Portal – identifying traditional as well as innovative resource opportunities, enhancing transparency and reducing risk of duplication while enabling a standards-based prospective and retrospective analysis of resourcing gaps in digital health
  • Transformation Toolbox – quality assured tools and resources that strengthen country capacity and autonomy to manage their national digital health transformation journey
  • Convening and Knowledge Exchange – promoting strengthened collaboration and knowledge exchange across global, regional, and national networks in digital health.

The estimated annual cost to support the implementation of the four pillars is US$14 million.

Whilst praising the initiative, Mr Margelis voiced a concern to AAA that the GIDH makes no mention of aged care. “The lack of an aged care focus reflects the population of the bulk of the countries that skews much younger than Australia,” he said.

“However, it is short-sighted as with healthcare improvements they will soon find themselves in the same boat as us. Therefore, it is important that we emphasise the need for integration, and a life-long view of health services supported by digital technology. Building the [aged care] sector’s digital maturity is critical for it to be able to get more focus and therefore the resources it needs.”

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