Digital health describes the use of information and communications technology tools within public health systems for the delivery of health services. Digital tools accelerate and expand access to quality health services in an efficient and effective manner.
Digital health is critical to global health security, and pandemic readiness and response. Digitized health information systems can track emerging outbreaks in real time, and support disease prevention and control measures to respond to health emergencies. The scale up of digital health innovations is also critical to the continuity of essential health services during a pandemic.
Digitally-empowered frontline health workers are strategic drivers for achieving Universal Health Coverage. By utilizing digital health tools, frontline health workers have access to patient health information for diagnostics, case management, defaulter tracking and informed decision making through the use of dashboard analytics.
An enabling ecosystem of improved mobile penetration, internet accessibility, supporting regulations, and increased digital literacy has propelled the uptake of digital health in low-and-middle-income countries (LMICs). For example, in Kenya, almost 100% of the population has access to a mobile phone, 65% can access a smartphone, and mobile devices represent 99% of internet subscriptions. Collaborative partnerships have delivered convenience where patients make financial plans for their health and pay for health services from mobile electronic wallets such as M-Pesa, which is used by 57% of Kenyans.
Champion health data authenticity, integrity, and security to protect human rights and preservation of trust. As evidenced from the COVID-19 pandemic, access to credible health data and information from reliable tools and channels are essential in promoting proper health care seeking and promotional behaviour change.
Support the standardization of health program data sets as a global good to steer the effectiveness of health surveillance systems. A minimum global standard of health program data sets are critical to guide the design of health program surveillance tools for universal tracking and response effectiveness.
Invest in patient-centered digital health solutions to facilitate client-initiated health care seeking and decision-making. Patient empowerment through digital access to health information supports people to make informed decisions regarding their health.
Support the implementation of national health digitization strategies. Invest in infrastructure improvement especially in low- and middle-income countries to support the implementation of national digitization strategies as a means of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Expand access to telehealth in low- and middle-income countries to help close the equity gap. Digital health solutions that are easily accessible at the last mile will ensure that every member of the community has equal opportunity to easily access health care services and information from within their reach.
Support the integration of health tools and technologies into existing health systems for resilient programming. An interconnected ecosystem of digital health solutions that are anchored on existing national health systems will improve service delivery and health programming.
Digital health solutions strengthen access to quality health services, promote the efficient functionality of health systems and facilitate the effective performance of health professionals. For example, Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development—a global call for groundbreaking, scalable solutions to infant and maternal mortality around the time of birth—has supported 115 innovative tools and approaches since 2011, addressing the 303,000 maternal deaths, 2.7 million neonatal deaths, and 2.6 million stillbirths that occur each year.
The digital health revolution builds on increased access to mobile phones, smartphones, and mobile Internet services worldwide. For example, South Africa’s MomConnect project communicates with pregnant women and new mothers via text messages, voice recordings, and WhatsApp to help them care for themselves and their children, as well as to encourage them to seek health services when needed.
Digital health helps frontline health workers educate themselves about life saving diagnoses and treatment, which is critical in hard-to-reach areas where little training or support is available. Programs such as the mPowering Frontline Health Workers partnership use text messages, mobile apps, video content, and other forms of mobile learning to help frontline health workers gain new information and maintain current skills.
Digital health already plays an important role in global health security. Community health workers are using mobile tools to collect health data and to automatically alert authorities of potential outbreaks. Digital health solutions also support track-and-trace efforts to help contain outbreaks within their areas of origin.
When digital solutions follow the Principles for Development and are built using open source code and openly licensed content, they can be expanded and adapted to countries, health contexts, and technologies. For example, DHIS2, an open source solution for tracking health indicators, is the world’s largest health information platform, used in 67 LMICs and covering an estimated 30% of the world’s population.
By better coordinating digital health programming, global health stakeholders can reduce duplicate efforts and ensure that digital solutions are more effective in increasing all health outcomes.
The global response to the coronavirus pandemic shows the pivotal role of digital health in reducing viral spread, supporting those infected and their communities, and maintaining existing health services. For example, the WHO Health Alert service can bring accurate COVID-19 information to two billion people through a partnership with WhatsApp and Facebook. The Government of Sierra Leone and the City of San Francisco use CommCare for case surveillance and contact tracing. The Government of Liberia is using mHero to support electronic integrated disease surveillance and response for existing infection threats, like malaria, in addition to COVID-19 response. Continued investment in digital health can help governments and their citizens respond to the pandemic and lessen its harmful effects.
 “The Current State of CHW Training Programs in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia: What We Know, What We Don’t Know, and What We Need to Do,” mPowering Frontline Health Workers, 2014. http://bit.ly/1SeJUPD.