What you need to know about digital health systems

WHO/Jerome Flayosc

What do 3D-printed prosthetics, personalized medicine, therapies that use virtual reality and smart watches that monitor vital signs all have in common? They rely on new digital technologies to deliver health services to people. Such innovative technologies can be incorporated into health systems to help them work more efficiently and effectively, and to provide greater access to health services for the people they serve.

Ministries of health in the WHO European Region are increasingly investing in digitalization. WHO/Europe is supporting Member States to overcome challenges in adopting digital technologies to strengthen health systems, and to explore fast-track approaches to digitalization for public health action.

With new hardware and software solutions constantly changing the way we live, it is fair to say that the future of health is digital. Here is what you need to know about digital health and its application in health systems.

1) Digital health goes beyond the use of mobile and internet technologies

Today the term digital health often encompasses electronic health (health-related information, resources and services provided electronically) as well as developing areas such as advanced computing science (for example, big data – large volumes of data from different sources that can provide valuable insights into population health) and artificial intelligence (AI), wherein computer systems perform tasks that would normally require human capacities, such as decision-making.

The technologies that digital health draws upon include telemedicine, mobile phones and applications, wearable devices, robotics, virtual reality, AI and genomics – a discipline that uses the genome sequencing data of an individual to diagnose diseases.

2) Digitalization can help make health systems responsive and sustainable

Longer life expectancies, increasing numbers of people living with chronic conditions and rising costs of health care are putting pressure on health systems around the world.

Digital health technologies can improve access to health services, reduce costs, improve quality of care and enhance the efficiency of health systems. They can also provide opportunities for self-care. For example, remote monitoring devices and wearables help people better manage their own health, thereby reducing the burden on health systems and helping to make them more sustainable. Technologies that help people live healthier lives can also reduce costs for health systems.

Digital health innovations, particularly AI, can make health systems more effective and personalized. From detecting skin cancers early by analysing moles to assessing someone’s predisposition to certain diseases to developing medicines tailored to individuals, AI can have far-reaching impacts on health systems.

3) Digital health enables the transition from treatment to prevention

Digital health technologies offer ways to self-manage health, with a focus on preventing disease and illness rather than simply treating them. Digital devices are already helping to track heart rate and blood sugar. By alerting a person if they should visit a health-care provider, they can reduce expensive visits to emergency rooms. In providing ways to capture and use health-related information, these devices help people live healthier lives.

4) Digital health systems call for modified roles of health-care professionals

Digital health technologies can enable patients to receive care without physically going to a hospital or clinic. This means that health-care professionals will need to have the skills to use digital health tools, and to guide patients in understanding and using digital solutions to improve their health.

Digital health systems can empower and engage patients, making them co-designers of care. This shared decision-making between health workers and patients demands trust, a sense of partnership and transparency in their interactions. Health-care professionals become collaborators in a patient’s journey to health, while still providing empathy and a human touch in support of patients’ well-being.

5) Digitalization allows health-care professionals more time to practise medicine

People often ask whether digital health innovations, particularly AI, will make health-care professionals redundant. In fact, technologies such as AI will help to reduce health-care professionals’ administrative burden and other repetitive aspects of their jobs, allowing them more time to do what they do best – practise medicine.

For example, digital solutions that automatically capture and analyse data can ease professionals’ workload, giving them more time with patients and enabling them to achieve better treatment outcomes. Digital devices that help people follow their medication regime or post-operative protocol free up health workers to spend more time with individual patients when they need them. Digital health systems can also help deal with current and projected shortages of health-care professionals.

6) Digital health systems can help reduce inequalities in health

Telemedicine already offers remote medical services using information and communication technologies. It can serve people in isolated areas by providing access to medical services that may not otherwise be available or affordable.

Digital health systems can also make quality health information more accessible, promote health literacy, promote healthy behaviours and provide access to support networks for patients. All of these factors contribute to reducing inequalities in health.

For more information about digital health, follow the WHO Symposium on the Future of Digital Health Systems in the European Region, taking place on 6–8 February 2019 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Select sessions of the Symposium will be live streamed via the link below.