The World Health Organization (WHO) released a new list of recommendations Wednesday offering guidance on how the global healthcare industry can use digital health technology accessible via mobile phones, tablets and computers to improve people’s health and essential services around the world.
“Harnessing the power of digital technologies is essential for achieving universal health coverage,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, M.D., said in a press release. “Ultimately, digital technologies are not ends in themselves; they are vital tools to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable.”
The list of 10 recommendations is based on a “critical evaluation of the evidence on emerging digital interventions that are contributing to health system improvements” and is the result of a two-year-long research project by WHO on digital technologies, including consulting with global experts, to produce recommendations on how such tools may be used for maximum impact. For example, the WHO guideline points to the potential to improve civil registrations and vital statistics by enabling birth and death notifications via mobile devices as this can help to reach under-registered populations.
The guideline also recommends implementing provider-to-provider and patient-to-provider telemedicine services to address patients’ accessibility to health facilities and providers, particularly in underserved communities. WHO officials point out that telemedicine is a valuable complement to face-to-face-interactions, but should not replace them entirely. It is also important that consultations are conducted by qualified health workers and that the privacy of individuals’ health information is maintained, WHO said.
For each recommendation, WHO provides an overview of the evidence on the digital intervention and implementation considerations.
According to WHO officials, one digital intervention already having positive effects in some areas is sending reminders to pregnant women to attend antenatal care appointments and having children return for vaccinations. Other digital approaches that WHO reviewed include decision support tools to guide health workers as they provide care and enabling individuals and health workers to remotely communicate and consult on health issues.
“Digital health is not a silver bullet,” Bernardo Mariano, WHO’s chief information officer, said in a statement. “WHO is working to make sure it’s used as effectively as possible. This means ensuring that it adds value to the health workers and individuals using these technologies, takes into account the infrastructural limitations and that there is proper coordination.”
The guideline builds on WHO’s ongoing focus on digital health as it released an eHealth strategy toolkit in 2012 and also developed an mHealth assessment and planning for scale (MAPS) toolkit (PDF) focused on scaling up mobile health innovations.
In 2018, a World Health Assembly resolution called on WHO to develop a global strategy on digital health to support national efforts to achieve universal health coverage. That strategy is scheduled to be considered at the World Health Assembly in 2020.
WHO also developed an online global technology registry platform, called a digital health atlas, to better coordinate digital health activities around the world and provide access to current best practices in digital health.
The guidelines stress the importance of providing supportive environments for training, dealing with unstable infrastructure, as well as policies to protect the privacy of individuals, and governance and coordination to ensure these tools are not fragmented across the health system.