On September 12-14, after two years online, the 53 member states from across Europe and Central Asia were invited to the 72nd session of the Regional Committee for Europe (RC72) held in Tel Aviv, Israel. Among the action plans approved, one concerns one of the flagship initiatives of WHO/Europe, digital health, it aims to leverage the digital transformation in Europe and Central Asia in order to improve the health and well-being of populations.
Digital health is one of the 4 flagship areas of the WHO European Programme of Work 2020-2025 (EPW) “Delivering as One for better health in Europe”. This new action plan is a concrete step towards making the ETP a reality through digital tools, including AI, megadata, blockchain, health data, health information systems, infodemia, Internet of Things, interoperability and telemedicine.
Developed following consultations with partners and the 53 countries in the Region, it takes into consideration the countries’ priorities in these and other areas, as well as their needs and challenges, including the problems faced by vulnerable groups in accessing digital health services.
The adoption of this new action plan on September 12 recognizes the essential role and potential of digital tools in the health sector, and builds on the lessons learned over nearly three years with the COVID-19 pandemic. It should thus enable progress towards universal health coverage, protect populations from health emergencies and promote health and well-being in the Region.
Hans Henri P. Kluge, MD and Regional Director of WHO/Europe, states:
“Digital health should be seen as a means to achieve health goals, not as the solution in itself to health problems or needs.”
“To be useful and truly promote better health, digital tools require good governance, appropriate legislation, and policies that encourage their healthy use while providing the people who use them – health care workers and patients – with the training and support they need to make the most of them.”
Digital tools to address health challenges
At CR 72, delegates adopted blueprints to better target and end several diseases that remain a challenge, including cervical cancer, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, and viral hepatitis.
They adopted the first-ever European framework for action to achieve the highest attainable standard of health for the estimated 135 million people with disabilities in the WHO European Region, and also endorsed a framework to combat alcohol-related harm in the Region, where 2 500 people die every day from alcohol-related diseases.
The wider adoption of digital health tools can make a real difference in helping governments and people in the Region to address these current health challenges, including those brought about by the pandemic.
Digital health extends the concept of e-health to areas such as:
- telemedicine, which provides access to health services regardless of where you live
- Health data and information systems – providing authorities with the information they need to develop health policies;
- AI and big data, which help clinicians, providers and policymakers plan or implement interventions;
- combating online infodemia, to help people trust high-quality health information.
Putting the patient at the center of digital solutions
For digital solutions to really take hold, the people who employ them need to have the right training and knowledge, and therefore provide it.
Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat, MD and Director of the Division of Country Health Policies and Systems at WHO/Europe, states:
“WHO/Europe is here to help countries leverage the use of digital tools in an inclusive and transparent way, while protecting people’s privacy and special needs.”
“Digital literacy for all users should be one of the key elements of any effective digital health strategy. Together with our Region’s governments, we are working toward solutions that put the needs of patients and health care workers at the center.”
The plan encourages countries to prioritize improving digital health literacy while recognizing the needs of citizens and health care workers and promoting an integrated approach to care that institutionalizes digital health in the Region.