I just returned from a busy but very exciting week at the annual World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva, and was thrilled to see how digital health is really gaining traction. Not only did it become a key discussion topic across the different global health sessions, it led to the adoption of the WHA resolution on digital health, as proposed by India. And as very well stated by Lav Agarwal, Joint Secretary International Health of India, “this is not a piece of paper; it represents digitally-empowered people who have better control of their health.”
During the week, digital health was at the center of several sessions: at an event organized by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Access to Medicine Foundation on game changers for the future of global health, Novartis Board member Ann Fudge joined an all-female panel and called for “sustainable health ecosystems that use digital technology.” She applauded the Novartis Foundation’s work in digital health and telemedicine and described our digital tool to accelerate the diagnosis of leprosy as an amazing example of innovation in global health.
At the lunch session organized by the Commonwealth Centre for Digital Health, on creating a digital health dynamic for UHC , I was fortunate to discuss ways to scale up and use digital as a way to strengthen health systems in a comprehensive way. A host of distinguished speakers, such as the health ministers from India, Australia, Malaysia, Malta, Sri Lanka gave impressive examples of how their health systems are embracing digital technology for a panoply of purposes, all with the goal of making healthcare more people-centered and accessible.
Also at the dinner hosted by PATH and the Botnar Foundation, we discussed how to better leverage digital solutions to accelerate the achievement of UHC.
Potential of digital health to address noncommunicable diseases(NCDs) and accelerate UHC
In the dialogue event we co-hosted with Intel and the NCD Alliance, more than 130 representatives from government, international and nongovernmental organizations, and senior digital health experts discussed the importance of digital health to address NCDs and accelerate UHC. Many agree that countries need to create a paradigm shift and enable their health systems to address the growing burden of NCDs, if they want to achieve UHC.
The lively exchanges at the event confirmed that digital technology can truly revolutionize the way healthcare is delivered and be a critical enabler to both expand access to care and improve its quality. Digital health offers the opportunity to make care more efficient, centralize scarce expertise to then coach less skilled health workers, facilitate the work of health providers with clinical decision support systems and track real-time health outcomes that enable providers and managers to identify performance gaps and target quality improvement interventions. On the other hand, digital health empowers patients and their families to take more control over their own health, thereby also increasing health literacy in the community.
When that potential gets realized, digital technology allows healthcare to become proactive instead of reactive, and even predictive. As such, policy makers should consider digital technology as an integral part of their health systems (just like hospital beds are) and not anymore as a “nice to have” standalone.
Governments have to consider digital health as an integral part of the health system
To realize the full potential of digital health, countries and governments need to be in the driver seat to establish and implement digital health strategies, and make ICT, health and other sectors work together.
Health ministers and experts from Ghana, Rwanda and India discussed how governments and policies can make a difference in addressing the real health priorities of their populations, including the needs of patients with NCDs. Country strategies are key to driving digital health for NCDs, and partnerships involving governments, NGOs and the private sector can contribute to design, implement and scale up such solutions. Ghana’s Minister of Health, Kwaku Agyeman-Manu, described how his country’s digital health strategy, launched in 2010, transformed the way hypertension and other NCDS are addressed today – citing several multi-sectoral initiatives including the City Cancer Challenge 2025 and our ComHIP program with the Ghana Health Service.
There is tremendous potential for digital health, as our Board member, Patrice Matchaba, Novartis Head of Global Health and Corporate Responsibility, says: “Digital health can propel Africa to the forefront of healthcare by sparking a new paradigm of patient-centered care.” This message was also stressed by Ed Kelley, WHO’s Director of Service Delivery and Safety, who explained that countries leading in the field see digital both as a data enabler and as a provider of people-centered care. “Digital health enables personalized public health by putting people at the center of the continuum of care. This is where most healthcare systems fail,” emphasized Rodrigo Saucedo-Martinez from the Carlos Slim Foundation. The idea of accessible health, anywhere and anytime, is at the core of Casalud , an innovative mobile health model for NCD prevention and control that has been integrated into Mexico’s national healthcare system since four years.
And last but not least, the interoperability of patient management and data systems, as well as other digital health solutions, was considered a key prerequisite to make further progress in digital health.
“I am a patient who is impatient”
In closing, I would like to reflect on the reminder from Fiona Adshead, Deputy CEO from the NCD Alliance, who stressed that time is of the essence in the fight against NCDs, reiterating a patient’s voice: “I am a patient who is impatient of the inaction on NCDs. I want change to happen.”
This is what drives all of us, aspiring to the goal of improving and extending people’s lives.