Digital Health – Big WHO Ambitions but Progress Lags
Digital health
At a session on Saturday, WHO, member states and other stakeholders assess the progress, realities, challenges and odds stacked against an ambitious global strategy on digital health.

On Saturday at the World Health Assembly, the World Health Organization (WHO) laid out the current realities of its digital health agenda as contained in the 2020-2025 global strategy on digital health.

WHO member states see digital health as an important vehicle for accelerating progress towards WHO’s ‘triple billion’ targets of universal health coverage, health emergencies response and healthier populations.

Even though the strategy was launched just before the COVID-19 pandemic began, the pandemic response demonstrated that countries’ investments in digital health also strengthened the resilience and responsiveness of health systems, the Director of the Department of Digital Health and Innovation, Alain Labrique, told the WHA.

An ambitious strategy

Digital health
A summary of the WHO’s strategic action plan on digital health.

The development of a global strategy on digital health underwent a two-year co-creation journey before its adoption at the 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA). The initial draft of the strategy document was drafted and disseminated for comments through an internal consultation in early 2019, followed by a series of global and regional consultations. The strategy aims to improve health for everyone, everywhere by accelerating the development and adoption of “appropriate, accessible, affordable, scalable and sustainable person-centric digital health solutions to prevent, detect and respond to epidemics and pandemics”.

The strategy also aims to develop infrastructure and applications that enable countries to use health data routinely to  achieve WHO and UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

It argues that the value and uptake of digital health solutions is  contingent upon a range of l factors including: accessibility, efficiency and sustainability; affordability; and versatility with respect to different health applications  Applications also need to maintain patient privacy and data security. 

To achieve “radical improvements” in health outcomes, the strategy called for investment in governance, institutional capacity, workforce training, planning, and management. 

“By aligning with national strategies for digitizing the health sector, WHO believes digital health can enhance efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and potentially introduce new business models for service delivery. 

Accomplishments so far less clear 

Presently, WHO is working to ensure that member states have the capacity, guidance, and tools necessary to undertake digital transformation, Labrique told member states on Saturday. Although he said the WHO is enabling member states with “the necessary interoperability architecture to enable domestic, regional, and global digital health goals,” he did not provide specific details on how this is being done.

Moreover, WHO said is facilitating the development of competency-based frameworks to enable the training of digitally enabled health workers of today and of the future. “We are working collaboratively with multiple stakeholders to address the digital divide and enable equitable, safe, and ethical access to life-saving technologies for all.”

Just what that really means in countries, however, is much less clear, critiques say. Observers say that WHO’s rollout of its strategy has been lackluster with leadership ill-equipped for the task, to date. 

Most recently, for instance, WHO created briefing notes for countries, donors and on a  new WHO Digital Health Clearinghouse that “assesses, curates and catalogs digital solutions that meet minimum requirements in the delivery of digital health interventions at the primary health care level.”

But while the clearinghouse was supposed to commence work in early 2023, with “solutions for specific health domains in early 2023, starting with Digital Documentation of COVID-19 Certificates (DDCC),” there is as of yet, no online address for the effort on WHO’s Digital Health page.

The digital health effort is housed in WHO’s Science division. Translating the high hopes of the strategy into results will therefore be a challenge facing new WHO Chief Scientist Jeremy Farrar, former director of Wellcome Trust.

A planned WHO data portal,, being developed in another WHO division, Data Analytics and Delivery for Impact (DDI) is supposed to consolidate WHO’s own wealth of digital health data assets, and provide greater interactivity between WHO headquarters, regions and country offices. It also has yet to get off the ground. 

Countries making progress

Many member states have already earmarked digital health for more investment – after the Pandemic served as a wake-up call. 

In its remarks, the government of Indonesia, which currently holds the G20 Presidency, affirmed its commitment to strengthening global and regional digital health systems  – along with the  national investments it is making now. 

“Indonesia has included digital health as one of our health transformation agenda priorities. Through the formation of digital transformation offerings of health, we aim to build an integrated system that ensures all processes run effectively and provides the best health care services to all to ensure a single national health data which is integrated and safely stored,” the country’s delegate stated. 

UK calls for ‘more work’ by WHO on digital health  

Meanwhile, the UK government, while acknowledging WHO’s current efforts, said that the agency needs to do more.  

“While there has been significant progress on digital transformation, [way] more work is needed to unlock its benefits in health and social care, said the UK delegate. 

“WHO’s leadership is vital in bringing together governments and other key stakeholders to advance the digital health agenda and address shared challenges such as data governance, interoperability, and incentivizing innovation,” he stated.

The UK also urged the WHO to focus on “aligning and harmonizing” digital health standards and ensuring that more detailed updates on progress are included in future WHA reports. 

In its submission, the International Pharmaceutical Students Association called on WHO and member states to empower young health care professionals to bridge the digital literacy gap in the community by including digital health and formal healthcare education curricula. 

The association also called for the creation of an enabling environment for young innovators by establishing clear funding and mentorship mechanisms. It also recommended the implementation of a harmonized digital strategy that includes community pharmacies.

Image Credits: WHO.

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