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Digital health at the heart of accomplishing universal health coverage during COVID-19 and beyond

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Bernardo Mariano Junior

Director of Digital Health and Chief Information Officer, World Health Organization

This same time last year, we had no idea of the unprecedented global health challenge waiting for us around the corner. When COVID-19 struck, it shook the foundations of our health, political, social, and economic systems. In doing so, it exposed a crucial vulnerability – that, without a resilient global health system, the social and economic foundations of societal security is at risk.

The pandemic has shown that, when safe and affordable healthcare is not accessible, the repercussions transcend political, social, and economic borders – impacting lives across the globe, particularly the poor and most vulnerable.

According to the World Bank forecast, the global economy will shrink by 5.2% this year, representing the deepest recession since the Second World War. The new report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) identifies 27 countries heading for COVID-19-driven food crises. No country or region is immune; but emerging markets and developing economies are particularly vulnerable.

In the wake of this pandemic, universal health coverage, founded on principles of equity and social justice, has never been more relevant. With that, a unique window of opportunity has opened. Now, we have the opportunity to build resilient post-COVID-19 health and disease surveillance systems that meet the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and fulfil the overarching priority of universal health coverage.

Encouragingly, 71% of countries that moved to universal health coverage did so shortly after episodes of state fragility. It proves that with political commitment, and the efficient and equitable allocation of resources, UHC is achievable for all countries, rich and poor.

Digital health can help accomplish universal health coverage. It has the potential to transform public health systems by improving its reach, impact, and efficiency. With expanded access to available health services, more marginalised and underserved populations will be included.

Digital health can accelerate the achievement of the new normal for UHC driven by the COVID-19 demands. The new normal puts greater emphasis on common goods for health, which includes public health functions – such as comprehensive surveillance, data and information systems, regulation, communication, and information campaigns.

When safe and affordable healthcare is not accessible, the repercussions transcend political, social, and economic borders.

To move toward this, WHO is developing the Global Digital Health Strategy. It proposes a framework for regulating, benchmarking, and certifying artificial intelligence and digital medical devices for countries to implement. It also proposes a regulatory framework for health data to protect the safety and privacy of personal health data. It calls for all digital health stakeholders, both private and public, to take action to align with principles that govern health data and safeguard data providers’ anonymity and safety.

We must remember that, to reap the benefits of digital health, countries must address the governance gap, the public trust gap, and the many ethical considerations. Without proper regulation, the divide will grow within and between countries, and with existing social and ethnic disparities.

Governments cannot work in isolation because digital health, unlike the traditional health sector, operates in a multi-sector ecosystem. We need all stakeholders, including health sector entities, multilateral organisations, governments, academia and the private sector, to preserve the safety, privacy, and ethical use of digital health tools.

Public-private partnerships are a fundamental component in this international solidarity, but the actions must be motivated by equity, solidarity, and social justice. Engagement with the private sector must explore ethical ways to structure collaboration and commercial model.

It is also the time for sustained political interventions and agreements. The establishment of the Digital Health Taskforce by the Saudi Secretariat for the G20 adds momentum to this vision. WHO is establishing a multi-sectoral network to help countries to conceptualize, develop, finance, and implement a sustainable digital health ecosystem.

COVID-19 is teaching the world many things, and one of those lessons is that isolating our sectoral efforts has little potential to affect great change, especially in the role of digital health in advancing health sector reform. Collective action and borderless solidarity is always the best answer.

Disclaimer- The opinions expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the author’s employer, or any other organisation

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