Digital health has many potential uses for population health management, health care delivery and access to care. At the same time challenges in governance and regulation remain, and the involvement of multiple stakeholders adds to their complexity. The Global Health Centre gathered representatives of those stakeholders to discuss these challenges and identify ways forward.
In the absence of a governance framework in digital health, academia has the role to study and understand what would be the best mechanisms and how to implement them. From an ethical point of view, trade-offs such as the tension between privacy and health delivery need to be balanced to foster health without creating additional vulnerabilities. In particular, the discussion highlighted the importance of trust for an accountable and reliable digital health transformation. Trust is necessary for citizens, as owners of health data, to volunteer their data to scientific research and benefit from the results. In this regard, regulation is a key instrument not only for citizens, but also for the private actors. They would benefit from clear and non-contradictory regulation frameworks that would allow to keep up with the rapid advancement and digital disruption taking place throughout the sector. The government, therefore, has a clear role in setting rules and achieving the political goals of governance to deliver their promises to the people, who are increasingly educated, aware and impatient to see action taken.
The potential of technology in reaching the last mile and delivering health to the isolated and underserved communities is particularly pronounced in emerging economies. The possibilities of digital health are vast. One example is the digital patient record which is owned by the patient and can be shared with any doctor anywhere, without the need to recite medical history at every doctor’s visit. Or, in health emergencies, digital health records allow information sharing with patients most at risk, as well as identifying patient groups with particular needs, such as diabetics or pregnant women, leading to efficient, timely and precise delivery of care and treatment. Indeed, digital health allows for shifting the focus from disease treatment to prevention in a more holistic view of well-being.
Political will and leadership are essential for the realisation of the benefits of digital health and their equitable distribution. The overarching goal therefore is to align multisectoral interests and understand that reaching the common goals delivers advantages to all: regulated and functioning markets for the private sector, improved health and care for the citizens, and delivering on universal health coverage and well-being for all to the governments.
As the challenges have been identified and mapped, it is now the task of all stakeholders to take action. A resolution on digital health will be tabled at the upcoming World Health Assembly in May 2018, providing an opportunity for setting a common ground to move the debate forward.