Data Driven Futures

WHO releases digital health guidelines

Written by Peter Walker

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has released new recommendations on 10 ways that countries can use digital health technology, accessible via mobile phones, tablets and computers, to improve people’s health and essential services.

Over the past two years, WHO systematically reviewed evidence on digital technologies and consulted with experts from around the world to produce recommendations on key ways such tools may be used for maximum impact on health systems.

One digital intervention already having positive effects in some areas is sending reminders to pregnant women to attend antenatal care appointments and having children return for vaccinations, the report stated.

Other digital approaches reviewed include decision-support tools to guide health workers as they provide care, and enabling individuals and health workers to communicate and consult on health issues from across different locations.

The guidelines also point to the potential to improve stock management, enabling health workers to communicate more efficiently on the status of commodity stocks and gaps.

“Ultimately, digital technologies are not ends in themselves; they are vital tools to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable,” commented WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The report pointed out that health systems need to respond to the increased visibility and availability of information. People also must be assured that their own data is safe and that they are not being put at risk because they have accessed information on sensitive health topics, such as sexual and reproductive health issues.

Health workers also need adequate training to boost their motivation to transition to this new way of working and need to use the technology easily. The guidelines stressed the importance of providing supportive environments for training, dealing with unstable infrastructure, as well as policies to protect privacy of individuals, and governance and coordination to ensure these tools are not fragmented across the health system.

WHO encouraged policy-makers to review and adapt to these conditions if they want digital tools to drive tangible changes.

“Digital health is not a silver bullet,” says Bernardo Mariano, WHO’s chief information officer. “WHO is working to make sure it’s used as effectively as possible – this means ensuring that it adds value to the health workers and individuals using these technologies, takes into account the infrastructural limitations, and that there is proper coordination.”

The guidelines also made recommendations about telemedicine, which allows people living in remote locations to obtain health services by using mobile phones, web portals, or other digital tools. WHO stressed that this is a valuable complement to face-to-face-interactions, but it cannot replace them entirely. It is also important that consultations are conducted by qualified health workers and that the privacy of individuals’ health information is maintained.

In 2018, governments unanimously adopted a World Health Assembly resolution calling on WHO to develop a global strategy on digital health to support national efforts to achieve universal health coverage. That strategy is scheduled to be considered at the World Health Assembly in 2020.

Although WHO is expanding its focus on digital health, the organization has been working in this area for years, for example, through the development of the eHealth Strategy Toolkit in 2012, published in collaboration with International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

To support governments in monitoring and coordination of digital investments in their country, WHO has developed the Digital Health Atlas, an online global repository where implementers can register their digital health activities. WHO has also established innovative partnerships with the ITU, such as the BeHe@lthy, BeMobile initiative for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases, as well as efforts for building digital health capacity through the WHO Regional Office for Africa.

Over the years, WHO has released a number of resources to strengthen digital health research and implementation, including the mHealth Assessment and Planning for Scale (MAPS) toolkit, a handbook forMonitoring and Evaluation of Digital Health, and mechanisms to harness digital health to end Tuberculosis.