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World Health Organization Releases First Guideline on Interventions for Digital Health

Newly released recommendations focus on ways to use digital technology to improve overall health.

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Digital technology has potential to improve overall patient health, as outlined in a newly released document published by the WHO.

Last week, the World Health Organization published guidance outlining ten proposals focused on the uses of digital health technology via computers, cellphones, and tablets to collectively improve overall wellness and critical health services. Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus states: “Ultimately, digital technologies are not ends in themselves; they are vital tools to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable.” Given the ubiquity of mobile devices, the proposals spotlight the potential of digital technology to propel the entire movement of healthcare forward: changing the very paradigm of health management.

Issued subsequent to WHO’s 2020-2024 draft global strategy on digital health released earlier this month, with an aim to “improve health for everyone, everywhere by accelerating the adoption of appropriate digital health,” the WHO has previously initiated several explorations into digital health—and will continue to study the applications of technology in medicine to both achieve universal health coverage and deliver its Sustainable Development Goals.

Successes of digital health innovations

The recommendations were based on a systematic, two-year review of evidence from around the globe. In consulting with international experts on digital health technologies, WHO sought to generate a proposal that would offer strategic ways that tools could be utilized for “maximum impact on health systems” and patient health. Digital interventions that have already demonstrated positive outcomes involved sending reminders to pregnant women regarding appointments, and having children return for necessary vaccinations. Another digital approach included more effective communication strategies for health workers and individuals from different geographic locations.

Moreover, in an effort to better support governments in coordinating and monitoring their countries’ respective digital investments, WHO has created the Digital Health Atlas: an online platform through which digital health activities can be registered. Other previous partnerships and resources include the mHealth Assessment and Planning for Scale (MAPS) toolkit to scale mobile health innovations and publications focused on mechanisms to use digital health to end TB.

Future implementations of digital health interventions

While the guideline emphasizes long-term, sustained potential for the integration of digital health technologies into health systems, Dr. Garrett Mehl, a WHO scientist in digital innovations and research, warns that “Digital interventions, depend heavily on the context and ensuring appropriate design… [this] includes structural issues in the settings where they are being used, available infrastructure, the health needs they are trying to address, and the ease of use of the technology itself.” Considerations related to leadership and governance, investment and strategy, policy and compliance, services and applications, standards and interoperability, and more are discussed to ensure cohesive coordination across the health system.

A specific recommendation in the guideline pertains to enabling patients in remote locations to access health services via mobile phones, web portals, or other digital tools. In acknowledging the importance of reaching vulnerable populations through digital health, WHO has taken a critical step in transitioning towards a system of healthcare in which digital medical technologies are a fundamental aspect of patient care. Through its cognizance of constrained resources and underserved populations, the guideline further represents a key time in which developments--like video DOT--can improve healthcare systems and outcomes, and overall patient health.