February 27, 2017

Time to Advance Digital Health: A Call for Government Leadership

By Ann Aerts and Rajeev Suri

We have all experienced the reality of poor health, through personal experiences with our families, our friends or colleagues. We all want access to good healthcare, no matter where we live. As global leaders, we have a great responsibility toward the health of our societies and must be committed to take bold actions. This motivated us to collaborate on a new report on Digital Health which calls for government leadership to move forward digital health, authored by the Broadband Commission Working Group on Digital Health co-chaired by the Novartis Foundation and Nokia.

Why did we launch this report?

First and foremost, we have committed to break silos by bringing experienced partners together from the health care and ICT industries. The objective is to facilitate the achievement of the Universal Health Coverage (Sustainable Development Goal 3; Target 3.8) by leveraging technology.

Digital health has the potential to increase the health and well-being of billions of people who do not have access to care. 

With digital health solutions poised to bring medical care and services to an estimated 1.6 billion people in the coming years, countries need national digital health plans and policies that draw together health and ICT ministries and harmonize the fragmented ecosystem of digital health solutions and programmes.

What are the outcomes of the report?

This report, which is intended to be action-orientated, calls on government leaders to advance digital health by developing and implementing national digital health strategies that effectively foster cooperation between ICT and health. The Working Group has outlined key governance mechanisms that promote effective collaboration between health and ICT stakeholders.

“We need continuous committed leadership from government with sustained financial resources to ensure a strong national digital health strategy. A growing number of technology-based health initiatives have taken shape in recent years. Only a few of those have reached scale and achieved long-term sustainability – the majority of projects have not made it past the pilot phase.” says Ann Aerts, Head of the Novartis Foundation. “That is why sustained leadership of policy makers and intragovernmental collaboration must guide the progress of designing and implementing a national digital health strategy, beginning at the planning stage.”

Key factors for success

According to the World Health Organization, 63% of their member state countries have already defined national digital health strategies. The report highlights case studies to illustrate a variety of national digital health measures that have achieved success in developing and implementing digital health. The examples demonstrate governance mechanisms that effectively encourage cooperation between health and ICT entities, including special emphasis on funding, national frameworks and standards.

For example, in the Philippines, close cooperation between health and ICT ministries, including a joint memorandum of understanding with clear roles and responsibilities, provided a solid basis for implementing a national digital health strategy. In countries with decentralized federal systems, such as Canada, the creation of a separate agency for digital health has enabled provinces to implement solutions in line with national digital health plans.

Where do we draw these outcomes from?

We conducted eight case studies around the world to give examples of successes and challenges of increased collaboration between ICT and health ministries, and while not prescriptive, they do offer examples across a variety of geographic, cultural and social settings. The aim is to move digital health strategies forward in a way that benefits the most people and helps achieve the SDG for health and well-being.

“Technology is helping us move to a more human-centric approach to healthcare. It gives us an enhanced, sophisticated, detailed capability to track even the smallest changes in our health, allowing us to trace trends in heart rate, blood pressure, or blood sugar,” says Rajeev Suri, CEO of Nokia. “Today we are capable to push the frontiers of healthcare by using technology to reach the remotest of locations, harnessing the power of mobile devices to help health professionals bring the most efficient medical techniques and highest quality of care to every community. But the true power of technology is felt when people are empowered to protect and preserve their own health.”

The overarching message of the report highlights the role of government leadership in fostering an enabling environment for digital health policies, harmonizing standards to promote interoperability, developing appropriate legislation to ensure security and privacy measures as well as mitigating challenges related to duplication of efforts.

The road to digital health

The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development was established in 2010 and comprises more than 50 leaders from across a range of government and industry sectors. As part of the Broadband Commission, the Working Group on Digital Health examines issues related to eHealth/mHealth, and the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) for health purposes.

The Broadband Commission Working Group on Digital Health is co-chaired by the Novartis Foundation and Nokia and is composed of leading digital health experts from governments, international and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academic institutions and the private sector. The Working Group commissioned Vital Wave to conduct research and to interview digital health leaders from twenty countries to explore the role governments play in developing and implementing digital health.

The Digital Health report builds off of the ITU and WHO National eHealth Strategy Toolkit and offers practical guidance on leadership, governance and intragovernmental cooperation to leaders in health and ICT who wish to adopt a digital health strategy.

UN Broadband Commission Working Group on Digital Health, chaired by Dr Ann Aerts and Rajeev Suri
Ann Aerts
Dr Ann Aerts has been Head of the Novartis Foundation since January 2013, where she has played a key role in transforming the organization from a funder of specific projects to one that aims at achieving systemic change (based on real-time health outcomes), with a portfolio of both service and system interventions, exploring innovative solutions to global health problems.The Novartis Foundation believes optimizing digital health supports its programmatic and policy work to improve health outcomes in low-income settings: from expanding access through telemedicine in Ghana, accelerating leprosy diagnosis with digital health technologies in the Philippines, to empowering the self-management of hypertension Vietnam and Ghana.Read her full bio here.

Rajeev Suri
Mr Rajeev Suri is the President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Nokia. He is a leader with a passion for creating value, generating growth, and delivering technologies that have a positive impact on people’s lives. He has deep expertise in many areas of technology, particularly mobile networks and related topics such as big data analytics, cloud computing, internet business models and more.Read his full bio here.
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Time to Advance Digital Health: A Call for Government Leadership

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