From drones delivering blood in Rwanda, to blockchain health records in Estonia it is clear to see that digital health tools have spread worldwide. But how these systems are being implemented varies greatly depending on the government, region and resources.
Today the World Health Organization (WHO) released 10 guidelines for how countries can use digital health tools to improve patient care. The recommendations advise on everything from how employ digital tools for birth notifications to implementing health worker decision support tools, and using telemedicine to digital health education services.
“Harnessing the power of digital technologies is essential for achieving universal health coverage,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. “Ultimately, digital technologies are not ends in themselves; they are vital tools to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable.”
The guidelines were designed to help decision makers in government health departments, the public health sector and other stakeholders, better understand how digital tools could address their population’s health needs. The new resource addresses issues of patient privacy, appropriate implementation and adoption hurtles.
WHO officials developed the guidelines using a combination of two online surveys and three in-person meetings with various stakeholders.
WHY IT MATTERS
Digital health technology is increasingly popular around the world, perhaps unsurprisingly, as around two-thirds of the world's population owns a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center.
But as the technologies grow in adoption, experts warn that it must be done thoughtfully, looking at the challenges of each region.
“Digital health has the potential to help address problems such as distance and access, but still shares many of the underlying challenges faced by health system interventions in general, including poor management, insufficient training, infrastructural limitations, and poor access to equipment and supplies,” authors of the guidelines wrote.
More organizations are starting to implement guidelines around digital health strategy and implementation including The Clinical Trials Transformation Initiative, Xcertia, and The American Medical Association.
It’s no surprise that WHO is now moving in this direction; digital health has been on the organization's radar for sometime. The organization has launched a few apps of its own, including a tool called WHO Zika App, which offers medical reference information about the Zika virus.
Before that the organization partnered with the Pan American Health Organization to launch and app that helped professionals track health, fitness and safety of students and other adolescent populations.
Also in 2012 the organization teamed up with the International Telecommunication Union to unrolled its eHealth Strategy Toolkit.
ON THE RECORD
“Digital health is not a silver bullet,” Bernardo Mariano, WHO’s chief information officer, said in a statement. “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.”