WHO releases first guidelines on digital health

The World Health Organization (WHO) has released new recommendations on ways that countries can use digital health technology 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 some key ways such tools may be used for maximum impact on health systems and people’s health.

“The use of digital technologies offers new opportunities to improve people’s health,” says Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at WHO. “But the evidence also highlights challenges in the impact of some interventions.”

She added: “If digital technologies are to be sustained and integrated into health systems, they must be able to demonstrate long-term improvements over the traditional ways of delivering health services.”

For example, the guidelines point to the potential to improve stock management. Digital technologies enable health workers to communicate more efficiently on the status of commodity stocks and gaps. However, notification alone is not enough to improve commodity management; health systems also must respond and take action in a timely manner for replenishing needed commodities, WHO said.

The guidelines also demonstrate 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 need adequate training to boost their motivation to transition to this new way of working and need to use the technology easily. The guidelines stress the importance of providing supportive environments for training and 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.

They also encourage policymakers and implementers to review and adapt to these conditions if they want digital tools to drive tangible changes and provide guidance on taking privacy considerations in access to patient data.

The guidelines also make 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 points out 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.

The guideline emphasises the importance of reaching vulnerable populations, and ensuring that digital health does not endanger them in any way.

This is far from WHO’s first foray into digital health. 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.

In February this year WHO discussed a roadmap for accelerating digital health adoption in Europe, and 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.

In March, director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced the creation of the Department of Digital Health to enhance WHO’s role in assessing digital technologies and support Member States in prioritising, integrating and regulating them.

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