It’s a wrap. The 76th World Health Assembly (WHA76) concluded its 10-day long annual process that, amongst many things, establishes the policies of the World Health Organization. If one has the opportunity to attend in person they are often met by a whirlwind of side events, meetings, discussion briefings, and countless cups of coffee.
There were several commitments made this year that are of interest to the average global health enthusiast on climate change and health, the commercial determinants of health and the digital transformation of health just to name a few. The term “digital transformations of health1” was, for the first time, used more throughout discussions than “digital health”. This shift in language and subsequent framing was apparent throughout the side events and discussions attended.
Three main wins for the digital transformations of health at the WHA76 included:
- Increased knowledge building, sharing and translating
Launch of iCHECK-DH: Guidelines and checklist for the reporting on digital health implementations2
The new guidelines and checklist aim to improve the “completeness of reporting on digital health implementations” and overall knowledge sharing of interventions in the digital health space. Dr Caroline Perrin from the Geneva Digital Health Hub outlined the relevance of such a tool by adding that learning from failures is just as important as learning from successes.3 The authors “anticipate that widespread adoption will standardize the quality of reporting and, indirectly, improve implementation standard and best practices” to support better policy adoption.4
Launch of the Global Digital Health Monitor (GDHM)5
Previously known as the Global Digital Health Index, the new “interactive digital resource helps countries to prioritise and monitor their digital health interventions” to better track progress, identify funding and technical needs, create stakeholder alignment, and identify investment risks at the country, regional and global levels.6
Patricia Machael shared key findings of the current responses received from the monitor including:
- most countries have a digital health maturity of phase 3 [1 being poor and 5 being advanced] which is quite good but better investment in EMRO and AFRO regions is needed;
- governance and leadership has declined since version one in 2016 due to the breakdown of structures since COVID-19;
- there is an increased need for cross country and regional sharing and learning, inclusive of private sector, between higher and lower maturity countries;
- there is a convincing argument to improve the digital capacity of the health workforce as this measurement of maturity was the poorest across the board.7
Translating knowledge to other necessary domains
The digital transformations of health occur within the broader ecosystem of the digital transformations. In turn, “digital transformations are closely connected with, and shaped by, the larger political, societal, and economic dynamics in which they are embedded”.8
Reminding ourselves that effective health policy does not operate in, or nor create solutions for a closed system was another repeating theme at the side event discussions of the WHA76.
In order for digital solutions for health to be impactful and create meaningful change, these solutions have to be designed, innovated and scaled in dynamic and multisectoral approaches.
During a WHA76 side event, Bilel Jamoussi from the ITU elaborated on creating sustainable digital transformations which are built on strong collaboration between the two domains of digital/data and health.9 Translating knowledge between domains improves the sustainability and overall success of interventions, yet it is often forgotten when the initial phases of design and creation of interventions are made.
Inclusivity discussions was another win for the digital transformations of health from this year's WHA76. Throughout all of the side events attended, the meaningful participation and decision making role of marganilised communities such as young people was recognised as being essential to the success of the future of health governance. At a side event organised by GHFutures, HYPER and IPSF, Dr Conrad Tankou, a medical doctor and founder of GIC Space brought home these messages by providing practical examples of the need to build enabling, innovative environments to empower youth to design digital solutions for reducing gaps in access and ensuring health care delivery.10
Ilona Kickbusch, Co-chair of GHFutures and Director of the Digital Transformations of Health Lab (DTH-Lab) and renowned global health expert urged other global health leaders in the digital space to not be “demographically neutral” - young people must be prioritised when building future health systems and digital environments.11 She also called on young people to take the lead to rethink the health systems they want, which will be a priority of the newly established Digital Transformations of Health Lab.12
Lastly, we must consider the importance of incentives at all levels of healthcare delivery if these solutions are to be practical and successful. Farid Fezoua, Global Director Health and Education for the World Bank elaborated that incentives are important for investors but also innovators and healthcare providers.13
IFMSA youth pre-WHA delegates are curious about the opportunities of digital solutions in providing healthcare but are not convinced these solutions are feasible in the current systems nor do they provide enough incentives for the healthcare workforce to fully engage with given their current responsibilities.14 The lack of incentives and recognition of time (another take home message from Riccardo Lampariello, CEO of D-tree and experienced global health leader with implementing digital health solutions at the country level) needed by healthcare providers to truly embed sustainable digital solutions in the healthcare system is one reason such solutions often fall victim to pilotitis.
- A call for global health community to advocate for the digital transformations of health in the lead up to the UN HLM on UHC
In 2019 at the first UN High Level Meeting on universal health coverage (UN HLM on UHC), leaders endorsed an ‘ambitious political declaration on health’ but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the targets for 2023 are not on track.15
Nick Tomlinson, Global Health Advisor in the OECD’s Health Division and Secretariat member of UHC2030, called on the global digital health community to advocate for the uptake of digital solutions in the lead up to the UN HLM on UHC; stating that “the HLM provides a high opportunity for integrating digital health and embedding services to achieve UHC”.16
Ilona Kickbusch, previous Chair of UHC2030 and currently on the UHC Movement Political Advisory Panel, urged organisations to look carefully at the Zero Draft Political Declaration and make specific points on what does this mean to the digital transformations of health17. “We are in danger of achieving the positive potential of digital transformations because we are not approaching it in a proactive manner.”18
GHFutures2030 shared its comments on the zero draft in hopes that the political declaration will better reflect that we are living in a digital age and that today, digital transformations are impacting all aspects of health and healthcare. Discussions of digitalisation, health data governance and digital health should cut across the political declaration and not be limited to a few mentions.
We are in an opportune window of time as the WHA76 wraps up and the UN HLM on UHC is just around the corner. Let us better connect convenings that share health for all targets so that we get back on track to meet goal three of the Sustainable Development Goals, good health and wellbeing.
Author: Whitney Gray
Research and Policy Officer | Youth Coordinator
1 Defined as - the multifaceted processes of integration of digital technologies and platforms into all areas of life, including health, are central to understanding – and shaping– many of these [economic, societal, technological, and environmental] disruptive dynamics. Lancet and FT Commission on governing health futures 2030: growing up in a digiital world https://www.thelancet.com/commissions/governing-health-futures-2030
2 Perrin Franck, et al https://www.jmir.org/2023/1/e46694/
3 WHA76 side event, ‘Digital transformations insights and learnings’presentation by Dr Caroline Perrin Franck held on 25 May 2023
4 Perrin Franck et al
5 Global Digital Health Monitor https://digitalhealthmonitor.org/
6 Global Digital Health Monitor
7 WHA76 side event, ‘Digital transformations insights and learnings’, presentation of GDHM by Dr Patricia Machael held on 25 May 2023
8 Lancet and FT Commission on governing health futures 2030: growing up in a digiital world https://www.thelancet.com/commissions/governing-health-futures-2030
9 WHA76 side event, ‘Digital transformations insights and learnings’, opening remarks by Bilel Jamoussi held on 25 May 2023.
10 WHA76 side event,’ New era: AI and digital technologies for sustainable health systems’ held on 26 May. More information on this event can be found here https://healthpolicy-watch.news/digital-health-systems-need-to-consciously-involve-young-people/
11 WHA76 side event,’ New era: AI and digital technologies for sustainable health systems’ held on 26 May.
12 WHA76 side event,’ New era: AI and digital technologies for sustainable health systems’ held on 26 May.
13 WHA76 side event,’ An Investment in digital health is an investment in UHC’ held on 23 May 2023.
14 WHA76 lunch briefing with IFMSA youth Pre-WHA delegates held on 30 May 2023.
16 WHA76 side event, ‘ An Investment in digital health is an investment in UHC’ held on 23 May 2023.
17 WHA76 side event,’ New era: AI and digital technologies for sustainable health systems’ held on 26 May.
18 WHA76 side event,’ New era: AI and digital technologies for sustainable health systems’ held on 26 May.