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Digital first health systems: How can they deliver better health futures for young people?


The Governing Health Futures 2030 (GHFutures2030) Commission’s report outlines how digital technologies and data are transforming health and healthcare. The Commission observed that health systems in all regions of the world are becoming increasingly digital first. This means that rather than travelling to a health facility for a face-to-face consultation with a health worker, a patient can access a growing range of health services and health information through digital channels.  

From Rwanda to the United Kingdom, governments are aspiring to make digital first healthcare available to their whole populations. Digital tools and services such as virtual consultations with doctors, digital sensors and wearable technologies to monitor vital signs, and AI-assisted health information tools are becoming increasingly integrated. As they become the norm, it is likely that we will very soon stop talking about ‘digital’ health and ‘digital first’ health systems. 

Digital first health systems offer advantages for both patients and health providers but the GHFutures2030 Commission is concerned that these benefits will not be fully realised because digital transformations are being allowed to evolve in ways that do not contribute to–or even undermine–health and wellbeing. The Commission has called for a radical rethink on how to harness the power of digital technologies to advance public health, universal health coverage and health equity. This includes putting young people’s needs and voices at the centre of the design and governance of digital first health systems. On international youth day (12 August) the GHFutures2030 Youth Network launched the #MyHealthFutures campaign, aimed at creating space for young people under 35 to share their hopes, concerns and ideas for improving health futures.

What does a digital first health system mean to you?

In the first phase of the campaign, the Commission invited young people to share what a digital first health system means to them and how such a system can deliver better health futures for young people. These viewpoints were shared through various channels including  social media platforms, the GHFutures2030 Youth Network and an online survey. A collection of responses were compiled into a video and presented during a session on digital transformation for health at the World Health Summit.

Several key themes and priorities have emerged so far from the campaign. Most contributors agree that digital technologies are crucial to progress health for all and uphold the right to health. Many young people want digital first health systems to increase health equity and make health services available to everyone, regardless of their educational background or socioeconomic status. 

Equity, human rights and the needs of young people should therefore be reflected in the design of digital first health systems. Young people want to play a role in both the design and governance of digital first health systems to help ensure that these systems are responsive to the diverse health needs of all young people, including marginalised populations, and address major challenges outside of the health sector such as climate change, education and political trust.  

Many young people have highlighted the importance of health data, recommending that digital first health systems should make health data available to patients and health workers whilst also protecting the privacy and confidentiality of personal data. Young people want action to be taken to address gaps and bias in health datasets. They also urged governments to invest in digital health literacy and digital education so young people can fully engage with and benefit from digital first health systems.

In order to improve an intergenerational perspective, Commissioners and partners were invited to elaborate on what digital first health systems mean to them.

For Professor Ilona Kickbusch, Founder of the Global Health Center and co-chair of the GHFutures2030 Commission, a digital first health system is a data-enabled system that allows individuals to access reliable information fast, initiate remote consultations, ensure continuous clinical support for self-management and engage in community health with others. She believes that such a system must be co-designed, be based on trust and solidarity, and put health promotion and citizen empowerment at the centre.

Rohinton Medhora, Distinguished Fellow at CIGI and GHFutures2030 Commissioner, also emphasised the centrality of data in digital first health systems. Big Data, he argues, should be gathered, marshalled, stored and used to enhance health services for patients and research for the global good while getting human rights and privacy right.

Co-designing digital first health systems to deliver better health futures for young people

Over the next year, the #MyHealthFutures campaign will support a series of workshops with young people to harness their imagination and foresight on the design and governance of digital first health systems. In September, a pilot workshop at the 2022 One Young World Summit revealed very interesting insights  on the essential design features of a digital first health system. 

Using futures thinking tools, 18 young people from 12 countries were invited to imagine a digital first health system in the year 2045. Participants shared key values or principles that they would like to see embedded in a digital first health system:

In small working groups, participants discussed essential features of a digital first health system that supports young people’s health and wellbeing. Their ideas closely reflected the views of those who took part in #MyHealthFutures online campaign with key issues identified including the digitalisation of health systems increase the accessibility, inclusivity and user-friendliness of health services. Since digital first health systems will be both using, transmitting and generating huge volumes of data, protecting personal health data was highlighted as an important feature. In the future, comprehensive, quality health services should be available to all whilst having the capacity to be tailored towards the needs of individuals, families and communities.

Throughout 2022 and 2023 the Commission will work alongside youth networks to capture the diverse perspectives, concerns and proposed solutions from youth representatives of various disciplinary and demographic backgrounds. 

If your organisation is interested in partnering with us please contact us at Continue to engage with the #MyHealthFutures campaign as it develops by joining the GHFutures2030 Youth Network, following our social media channels and by completing our online survey.

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