Opening speech at the WHO Symposium on the Future of Digital Health Systems in the European Region

6 February 2019

Your excellencies, Deputy Prime Minister, ministers of health, esteemed guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour and a privilege as WHO Regional Director for Europe to be with you today at the opening of the first-ever WHO Symposium on the Future of Digital Health Systems in the European Region. I am sure we all agree that we are in a new phase of development in the digitalization of health that will revolutionize our work in many ways.

In public health, as in many other sectors, technology and innovation have begun to flow through everything we do. Together here this week, we will seize the opportunity for meaningful discourse on how technology and digitalization support health system development and public health.

WHO firmly believes that digitalizing health systems is a key component in achieving universal health coverage, which is based on the belief that all people should have access to the health services they need – to disease prevention, health promotion, rehabilitation and palliative care – without the risk of financial ruin or impoverishment. In this context, digital health has an important role to play in improving the reach, impact and efficiency of modern health care and in delivering patient-centred services.

Digital health is increasingly utilized to overcome social and demographic stresses, address inequity and health insecurity, improve training of the health workforce, strengthen public health surveillance, link databases, use joined-up electronic patient records, and provide health services and preventive measures to remote and underserved populations.

Perhaps most importantly, however, digital health is empowering communities and individuals to improve their health and well-being in unprecedented ways. They are accessing services in environments that are comfortable and familiar as care is brought out of hospitals and closer to home, and at times that are convenient and meaningful by using, for example, smart devices to track, manage and improve their health.

Overall, digital health helps empower patients to take control of their health and reaches out to communities in sparsely populated areas. It also supports health professionals and institutions to be more effective and efficient.

While at times technology can appear hard and impersonal, it also has a unique ability to support and bind us as human beings, as families, as societies. And in no area is this more relevant, or more needed, than in the delivery of health services to our populations, especially to those who are most disadvantaged, marginalized or vulnerable.

We know that European decision-makers face multiple challenges when introducing innovation into health systems. These include allocating finances for the development of digital health services; integrating data across multiple, diverse systems; and ensuring that the health workforce is not only equipped to use technology but is also trusting and open to embracing the change that it inevitably brings.

These are the real issues we see – and they are often more “human” than “hardware”.

After all, the real value in digital health lies in its ability to allow us to be human. It’s the Roma mother who is able to share her anxieties with a community health worker thanks to a telehealth translation service. It’s the patient with chronic disease who is received by a hospital emergency department ready to meet his complex health needs because of the availability of electronic health records at the right place and time. It’s you and it’s me when we need timely access to health services and health information.

Digital health is increasingly self-evident as a means of making our health systems even more patient-centred. The challenge for European Member States now is to move beyond an understanding of the promise of digital health to a focus on tangible steps for accelerating its implementation.

In tackling the growing burden that noncommunicable diseases in particular are placing on our national health systems, we need to rethink our approach to health service delivery. We see evidence that Member States in Europe and beyond are already well underway with this transition.

But in doing so, we need to take a strategic approach in linking investments in digital health to key public health and health policy goals. Without this, we risk delivering information technology solutions that are orphaned from the broader health system, that disengage health-care professionals, and that ultimately end in lost opportunity and wasted potential for health systems integration.

Perhaps even worse, we risk the emergence of an unwanted digital divide in Europe, where the focus of investments in digital health are misaligned with real societal need and where innovations benefit only those who are wealthy enough to pay for them.

But within these challenges lie immense opportunities. Like you, I am excited by the advances that digital health is showing in shifting from reactive care to prevention and early detection of disease. I am excited by the delivery of integrated, people-centred health services enabled by digital health. And I am excited by the capabilities that massive data sets have to help us shape public health interventions.

But while excitement and potential are one thing, evidence and implementation are another.

Under its 13th General Programme of Work, WHO has committed to an ambitious “triple-billion” set of goals. These strategic priorities are linked to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which will guide WHO’s action and engagement over the coming 5 years.

They aim for 1 billion more people to be benefitting from universal health coverage, 1 billion more people to be better protected from health emergencies, and 1 billion more people to be enjoying better health and well-being.

This work – through digitalization – will take on new meaning, new dimensions. The work we envisaged and completed under Health 2020 on whole-of-government, whole-of-society and health-in-all-policies approaches will play out more and more in a digital, virtual world!

This also means that the digitalization process has an important governance component that requires our full attention. Our efforts are needed to address the emerging challenges of digitalization together with its advantages, which include improved access, reduced costs and increased quality – at least in the long run.

These public health goals can only be achieved if WHO, together with Member States and partners, ensures the safe, effective and affordable application of digital technologies in strengthening health systems and public health capacity. In this respect, WHO is committed in every way and at every level to taking action for the digitalization of health systems, in particular to support primary health-care settings.

It is therefore time to accelerate action for building the future of digital health systems in Europe. WHO and its global network of partners are ready to support Member States in meeting this challenge! Digital health has an indisputable role in shaping the future of our health and well-being, and increased public health engagement in its adoption is vital to ensuring a future where the benefits of digital health for all are realized.

Thank you.