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Virtual Health: Being Healthy In a Digital World

The Covid-19 pandemic has greatly accelerated the use of digital technologies in the health sector.…
Virtual Health: Being Healthy In a Digital World
Virtual Health: Being Healthy In a Digital World

The Covid-19 pandemic has greatly accelerated the use of digital technologies in the health sector. For many individuals who were no longer able to access care in person, access to virtual health services became a matter of life and death.

The Digital Gap…

This revolution will not go away with the end of the pandemic. But without careful management, a digital gap could exacerbate health inequalities. If we are to ensure a future of e-health in which no one is left behind, we must first learn from the lessons of the past 18 months and ask the right questions.

Digital Health Around The World…

From the very first months, the pandemic triggered a massive shift towards online health services. In France, the number of telehealth consultations rose from 40,000 to 4.5 million between February and April 2020. In India, online health consultations among people over 50 years old increased by 502% last year. Global investment in digital health doubled year-on-year in 2020 to $21.6 billion. And non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations – from the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development to the World Health Organization – have stepped up their focus on the issue.

The rise of virtual health services during the pandemic has led to many changes in policy and new business practices. Some of these changes have been beneficial and will serve as the basis for future advances, but their rapid implementation has often resulted in disjointed execution and uneven results.

It is still too early to comment on the precise design of virtual health services in the post-pandemic era, and each country’s approach must of course be tailored to local circumstances. But we can already begin to identify the right steps to take in order to shape the future of this rapidly growing global sector.

First, what can these services really do? If we think of eHealth as simply an industry example of an emerging technology, it may generate efficiencies and even improve performance, but it will not achieve its full potential.

In many cases, technologies that are already part of everyday life can empower patients. Online services can help people take charge of their health in a personalized, accessible and convenient way. While visiting a health facility can sometimes be a chilling and intimidating experience, or even logistically impossible, virtual services allow people to consult at their convenience, from the comfort of their own homes. Particularly in low- and middle-income countries, the development of telemedicine can help compensate for the lack of physical infrastructure while providing an additional tool to connect isolated populations with national health systems.

Second, how can virtual care promote equity? The WHO recently identified health equity as one of the four guiding principles of its global digital health strategy, calling for investments in infrastructure, education and resources to help low- and middle-income countries adopt new digital health technologies. In June 2021, G7 health ministers also stressed that virtual health care services should be “inclusive, comprehensive and equitable”.

Even in high-income countries, marginalized communities have often borne the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic, exacerbating historical and inherent inequalities. To fully realize the promise of virtual health care, digital connectivity must be leveraged to reach the previously excluded.

Third, what approaches to virtual health services hold the most promise? Countries with sufficiently flexible regulatory systems performed best during the pandemic. Removing the requirement for new patients to have an in-person consultation before receiving virtual care was a key policy change that some countries quickly adopted. We also know that data and artificial intelligence have been and will continue to be powerful enablers of virtual healthcare. Real-time monitoring, analysis, and decision making are only possible if data is managed effectively at scale.

But data-driven approaches raise important concerns about confidentiality, data storage and the use of information, which must be carefully considered in the context of human rights and ethical standards. To help governments address these concerns, the WHO global strategy provides a regulatory framework to ensure the appropriate use of health data. It also defines key concepts such as health data as a global public good and outlines principles for equitable data sharing.

Finally, how should we proceed in the future? By carefully examining the impact of the pandemic on e-health, we can identify best practices, build on what has worked, and make necessary reforms. We can provide practical tools for preserving and scaling up advances in e-health, managing the impact of the pandemic-induced increase in demand for these services, and setting the stage for a transformative and equitable future.

To facilitate this analysis, the Novartis Foundation and WHO are co-leading a new Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development working group on virtual and data-driven health services. Together, we want to help countries bridge the digital gap, include the excluded of the past, and deliver quality health care for all.

The Covid-19 pandemic has greatly accelerated the use of digital technologies in the health sector. For many individuals who were no longer able to access care in person, access to virtual health services became a matter of life and death.

This revolution will not go away with the end of the pandemic. But without careful management, a digital divide could exacerbate health inequalities. If we are to ensure a future of e-health in which no one is left behind, we must first learn from the lessons of the past 18 months and ask the right questions.

From the very first months, the pandemic triggered a massive shift towards online health services. In France, the number of telehealth consultations rose from 40,000 to 4.5 million between February and April 2020. In India, online health consultations among people over 50 years old increased by 502% last year. Global investment in digital health doubled year-on-year in 2020 to $21.6 billion. And non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations – from the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development to the World Health Organization – have stepped up their focus on the issue.

The rise of virtual health services during the pandemic has led to many changes in policy and new business practices. Some of these changes have been beneficial and will serve as the basis for future advances, but their rapid implementation has often resulted in disjointed execution and uneven results.

It is still too early to comment on the precise design of virtual health services in the post-pandemic era, and each country’s approach must of course be tailored to local circumstances. But we can already begin to identify the right steps to take in order to shape the future of this rapidly growing global sector.

First, what can these services really do? If we think of eHealth as simply an industry example of an emerging technology, it may generate efficiencies and even improve performance, but it will not achieve its full potential.

In many cases, technologies that are already part of everyday life can empower patients. Online services can help people take charge of their health in a personalized, accessible and convenient way. While visiting a health facility can sometimes be a chilling and intimidating experience, or even logistically impossible, virtual services allow people to consult at their convenience, from the comfort of their own homes. Particularly in low- and middle-income countries, the development of telemedicine can help compensate for the lack of physical infrastructure while providing an additional tool to connect isolated populations with national health systems.

Second, how can virtual care promote equity? The WHO recently identified health equity as one of the four guiding principles of its global digital health strategy, calling for investments in infrastructure, education and resources to help low- and middle-income countries adopt new digital health technologies. In June 2021, G7 health ministers also stressed that virtual health care services should be “inclusive, comprehensive and equitable”.

Even in high-income countries, marginalized communities have often borne the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic, exacerbating historical and inherent inequalities. To fully realize the promise of virtual health care, digital connectivity must be leveraged to reach the previously excluded.

Read: The Brain Can Create Imaginary Illnesses

Third, what approaches to virtual health services hold the most promise? Countries with sufficiently flexible regulatory systems performed best during the pandemic. Removing the requirement for new patients to have an in-person consultation before receiving virtual care was a key policy change that some countries quickly adopted. We also know that data and artificial intelligence have been and will continue to be powerful enablers of virtual healthcare. Real-time monitoring, analysis, and decision making are only possible if data is managed effectively at scale.

But data-driven approaches raise important concerns about confidentiality, data storage and the use of information, which must be carefully considered in the context of human rights and ethical standards. To help governments address these concerns, the WHO global strategy provides a regulatory framework to ensure the appropriate use of health data. It also defines key concepts such as health data as a global public good and outlines principles for equitable data sharing.

Finally, how should we proceed in the future? By carefully examining the impact of the pandemic on e-health, we can identify best practices, build on what has worked, and make necessary reforms. We can provide practical tools for preserving and scaling up advances in e-health, managing the impact of the pandemic-induced increase in demand for these services, and setting the stage for a transformative and equitable future.

To facilitate this analysis, the Novartis Foundation and WHO are co-leading a new Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development working group on virtual and data-driven health services. Together, we want to help countries bridge the digital gap, include the excluded of the past, and deliver quality health care for all.

Last modified: October 23, 2023
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