Within the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, Europe was one of the hardest hit regions. When the disease first began to spread, countries quickly looked for ways to treat the virus and stop the transmission. This led to the deployment of a vast array of digital tools.
“The WHO has been advocating for many years to strategically invest in digital health and digital health systems, be it to help transforming health systems – boosting new models of service delivery to educate the population of the role of digital health in prevention, care and monitoring,” Dr. Hans Henri Kluge, the World Health Organization’s director for Europe, said during a FutureMed presentation this afternoon.
He noted that the coronavirus pandemic has boosted the adoption of digital tools and scaled these technologies. However, going into the next digital age, he warned that it’s important to learn from the past.
“The key issue here is not to repeat the pitfalls from the past that we are aware of, mainly on the governance, the interoperability, the trust for digital health,” he said.
Digital contact-tracing tools have become a popular way to help governments track the spread of the disease. Kluge reported that 27 out of the 53 countries in WHO’s European region have some kind of digital contract-tracing solution, with even more in the works. But he said there is some danger of repeating the past.
“We know there is still no final here on the complete effectiveness,” he said. “We know most of the issues. It has to do with ethics, with human rights, with privacy and one word…. trust.”
Worldwide, contact-tracing tools have come under fire for questionable privacy practices. In June Amnesty International published a new report that claimed Norway, Bahrain and Kuwait had “some of the most invasive COVID-10 contact-tracing apps around the world.” Since the report Norway stopped its app. Kluge said that trust is important beyond the coronavirus pandemic.
“The trust issue is at the core of my vision. What I would like to do, the vision for the next five years in the WHO European region, is to help health authorities and empower them to help to answer to the legitimate concerns that people have towards their health authorities.”
Although tracing tools have become popular, Kluge said that there has always been a segment of the population that is unwilling to share data with health authorities.
“Let’s not pinpoint or stigmatize those portions of the population, but design solutions or operational approaches which take into account those people,” he said.
Today all eyes are on using digital to treat and track the coronavirus. However, Kluge said that even during this time digital can have more use cases.
“A lot of people are still passing away due to coronavirus, but a whole group of people are suffering because they do not get the treatment for a whole lot of other pandemics – the pandemic of cardiovascular disease, the pandemic of diabetes, of cancer. So, that is, I think, where digital health can make a huge impact in terms of equity and population-based impact,” he said. “On COVID-19 everyone is focused on it. I’m less worried. I’m more worried: How do we leverage digital health to decrease and avoid excess mortality?”
Mental health is one of those health conditions. He noted that the lockdown may have large consequences on mental health, and digital could be one solution to combating those health issues.
Kluge also sees digital having an impact on medical misinformation.
“Let’s think of how to take advantage of digital health for vaccination records and reminders. We know that vaccination works. [There's] still a huge question mark about COVID vaccines, but we know that vaccines for seasonal flu work, so let’s take advantage. Also, to beef up health information and decrease what I call [the] ‘infodemic’ – misinformation. So, I would say that is something that, very quickly, we can make a huge impact – by decreasing mortality and boosting health,” he said.
The World Health Organization has teamed up with tech giants like Facebook and Google to help curb the spread of coronavirus-based health misinformation.
Going forward, Kluge warned that digital tools need to be for all populations – especially when fighting something like a global pandemic.
“As a health leader I cannot and will not allow that we are going to have another divide. The vulnerable people were hit harder, so we cannot afford another digital divide,” he said. “If there’s one thing COVID-19 has [taught] me, it’s that no one is safe until everyone is safe, so let’s see this, including digital health, as a boost to international solidarity.”