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WHO Releases First Guideline on Digital Health Interventions

Posted 17 April 2019 | By Ana Mulero 

WHO Releases First Guideline on Digital Health Interventions

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday released a first-of-its-kind guideline on 10 ways for countries to apply digital health interventions across the health system while avoiding potential detrimental effects.

The 10 recommendations are detailed in the UN agency’s 124-page guideline for strengthening health systems through the appropriate implementation of digital health. The focus of the guideline is currently limited to digital health technologies that can be accessed via cellphones, tablets and/or computers and indicated for improving patient health and essential health delivery services. WHO plans to release future versions of its guideline to reflect a broader scope of digital health interventions.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, said: “Today we have more health information – and misinformation – at our fingertips than any generation in history. Before we ever sit down in a doctor’s office, most of us have Googled our symptoms and diagnosed ourselves – perhaps inaccurately. Similarly, digital technologies are being used to improve the training and performance of health workers, and to address a diversity of persistent weaknesses in health systems.”

The 10 recommended interventions are deployable via any digital device, which is meant to ensure such interventions are applicable in settings with low resources.

Recommendations deal with birth and death notifications via mobile devices, stock notifications and commodity management via mobile devices, targeted client communication via telemedicine, digital tracking of health status and services via mobile devices, as well as training and educational content for health workers via mobile devices.

“This guideline document recognizes the need to monitor the rapidly evolving nature of digital health, systematically through a continuous scanning and review of the literature and innovation pipelines,” WHO said.
While digital health interventions are not intended to serve as a substitute for functioning health systems, they could be useful in addressing current limitations in health care delivery settings, including distance and access, as well as insufficient personnel training.

“Digital health is not a silver bullet,” said WHO chief information officer Bernardo Mariano.

Considering the many underlying challenges facing health system interventions as barriers to really harnessing the full potential of digital health, the guideline is centered on several expected contributions to universal health coverage.

The guideline also provides an overview on the context of implementing digital health interventions and it lays out the direction for future research. Implementation considerations and the plan for WHO to disseminate and continuously update its framework over time are discussed in the guideline as well.

The considerations relate to leadership and governance, strategy and investment, policy and compliance, services and applications, infrastructure, standards and interoperability and health workforce capacity in support of the linkages of WHO’s recommendations across the health system.

“While the recommendations included in this guideline are based on distinct digital interventions, they all contribute to the health systems’ needs in different but interlinked ways,” WHO noted. “The first major update to the guideline is likely to be needed within 18 to 24 months of this initial dissemination, to accommodate new evidence for the existing recommendations and any emerging evidence related to other innovations in the WHO classifications.”

The guideline was issued in conjunction with a web supplement on evidence-to-decision frameworks and papers with more details on research considerations. It follows on the heels of WHO’s 2020-2024 draft global strategy on digital health released earlier this month, urging for a harmonized approach on applying information and communication technologies.

Other recent actions at WHO—an official observer of the International Medical Devices Regulators Forum—in the medical device space include work on its international nomenclature for medical devices.

WHO Guideline: recommendations on digital interventions for health system strengthening

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