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7th September 2023

WHO urges investment in Digital Health for wider access and innovation

The WHO Regional Office for Europe has released a significant report advocating for immediate investment, innovation, and inclusivity in the realm of digital health.

Unlocking the potential of Digital Health

Across the WHO European Region, the adoption of digital health solutions has been on the rise. This transformation is reshaping how patients receive care, whether it’s at primary care centres, hospitals, or even in the comfort of their homes. Digital advancements are revolutionising diagnosis and treatment for a wide range of conditions, from cancer to diabetes and mental health. Now, countries must prioritise investing in digital health technologies and platforms to ensure universal access to these digital healthcare benefits.

The report, titled “Digital Health in the European Region: The Ongoing Journey to Commitment and Transformation,” is being unveiled in Porto, Portugal, during the Second WHO Symposium on the Future of Health Systems in a Digital Era in the European Region. It covers all 53 Member States of the Region. Although many countries accelerated their adoption of digital health tools and policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including telemedicine and user-friendly health apps, the report underscores the need for further progress.

This two-day event, co-hosted by the Portuguese Ministry of Health, brings together over 500 participants, including government representatives, civil society stakeholders, digital health experts, and more. Their aim is to collectively address the existing gaps in digital health and explore ways to enhance collaboration between countries and the industry. The report serves as a roadmap for harnessing the benefits of rapidly evolving technology, including artificial intelligence (AI), while also addressing potential risks and negative impacts associated with these vital innovations.

The WHO European Region is one of the six regions of the World Health Organization (WHO). It encompasses 53 countries and covers a vast geographic area, stretching from Greenland to the Russian Federation, from the Mediterranean to the Baltic Sea.
The WHO European Region is one of the six regions of the World Health Organization (WHO). It encompasses 53 countries and covers a vast geographic area, stretching from Greenland to the Russian Federation, from the Mediterranean to the Baltic Sea.

Addressing the digital health divide

One pressing concern is the growing digital health divide, driven by the uneven adoption and access to digital solutions. Across the region, millions of people remain excluded from the benefits of digital health technology. This inequality demands immediate attention, necessitating focused investments in technology and the empowerment of healthcare providers. Our goal is to ensure that everyone, especially those with the most to gain, can confidently access and utilize digital health technology.

Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, highlights the irony that those with limited digital skills, such as older individuals and rural communities, often stand to gain the most from digital health tools. Addressing this imbalance is pivotal for the digital transformation of the healthcare sector. Digital health is undeniably the present and future of our health systems, but it’s crucial to ensure that everyone benefits, leaving no one behind.

The report reveals that 44 countries in the region have adopted a national digital health strategy, and all 53 Member States have data privacy legislation in place. However, it also underscores significant gaps and areas needing improvement:

  1. Only 19 countries have established guidelines for evaluating digital health interventions, a critical step for their safety and effectiveness.
  2. Just over half of the region’s countries have policies for digital health literacy and digital inclusion plans.
  3. Thirty countries have enacted telehealth-supportive legislation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  4. Many countries lack dedicated oversight entities for mobile health (mHealth) apps, resulting in concerns about quality, safety, and reliability, with only 15% conducting evaluations of government-sponsored mHealth programs.
  5. Slightly more than half of the countries have developed data strategies to regulate the use of Big Data and advanced analytics in the health sector.

“We find ourselves at an exciting moment, the intersection of health, well-being and technology, where digital tools and health care meet,” said Dr Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat, Director for Country Health Policies and Systems, WHO Regional Office for Europe.

“Our report clearly shows both our progress and where we now need to focus our attention: on making sure people can trust digital health tools, and that everyone, everywhere, can access them equally. This requires a particular focus on women and girls who are, in many societies, often excluded when it comes to accessing the latest advances in technology. Closing the digital skills gender gap is critical to leverage the potential health benefits such technologies can bring for women and girls, and through them their communities, and wider society.”

Building better health systems

The report highlights three crucial recommendations that are essential for countries aiming to enhance their health systems through digital solutions:

  1. Provide access to reliable, low-cost broadband for every household and every community.
  2. Ensure health data are safe and secure to help build and maintain trust in digital health tools and interventions.
  3. Make digital health tools, including electronic patient records, inter-operable within and between countries.

“The European Region can – and should – be a leader in digital health,” concluded Dr Kluge.

“Our report shows the Region is starting from a strong position, though the health sector is still a long way behind other sectors. In many countries, digital health programmes have so far developed on an ad-hoc basis and this needs to change. To realise the full potential of digital health, it needs to be seen as a strategic long-term investment rather than an add-on or a luxury for the few. This calls for political will at the highest levels of government and health, to ensure optimal investments in digital health infrastructure of the future now, rather than later. We have exciting, life-changing opportunities before us, underpinned by the principles of equity and health for all.”