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Can digital transformation of health keep the pace of technological innovation?


In 2022, the Global Digital Health Forum hosted its first hybrid conference, gathering over 400 attendees in person and more than 1,000 virtually. While balancing catching up with friends and colleagues and attending sessions (the agenda was packed; watch recorded sessions until March here) was difficult at times, I used the forum, as always, to reflect on the state of digital health and future trends and challenges. What remains constant is that technological innovation is moving quicker than we can implement it. For example, we are grappling with how to use artificial intelligence to improve health outcomes without introducing additional bias into health care. As we progress from digitizing (adapting processes and tools to digital technologies) to digital transformation (the process of revamping the health sector to maximize the benefits of using information and communications technology to improve service quality and efficiency), we need our enabling environments to keep up with the pace of rapidly changing technology. At the forum, equity, governance, and human resources stood out as important elements of ensuring this.

You may think, “Has this author been living under a rock? We have been talking about these topics for years.” Indeed, we have. But at the 2022 forum, we discussed them in more depth with more nuance.

Take equity for example. Not only did speakers note the importance of exploring the equity of their digital health interventions, there were multiple sessions at participants discussed how they are improving equity in digital health. The fact that the forum was hybrid itself demonstrated the shift in focus to how we as a community can ensure more equitable access to knowledge, networking, and professional development opportunities. There was even a pre-forum workshop to support women in digital health leadership positions.

As for governance, I was awestruck by my colleagues from the Ministry of Health and Country Health Information Systems and Data Use (CHISU) in Indonesia as they described updates they made to regulations specifying the criteria that health information systems should meet to be able to integrate with MOH systems. They have moved beyond developing a digital health strategy and vision to operationalizing it through laws and regulations.

Lastly, human resources. Of course, this audience does not need a lecture on how important they are to sustainability of digital health. However, what has been missing for years is clarity on types and quantity of human resources needed to operationalize these country-owned digital health strategies and visions. As CHISU Deputy Director Stephanie Watson-Grant noted, “The demand for health informaticists, data scientists, […] is outgrowing the supply.” There is no one training program in digital health capacity strengthening; transforming the health sector digitally requires many cadres and competencies. During the forum, WHO and I-DAIR introduced their competency framework for global digital health and artificial intelligence, to be released in May.

As we kick off 2023, I look forward to seeing what we accomplish in these three areas. I hope this includes:

Re-thinking how digital transformation is funded and implemented to increase local leadership and sustainability, which will in turn increase the chances that digital transformation will improve health outcomes.

Developing repositories of laws and regulations for digital health and health information systems that provide starting points for countries that are advancing digital strategies.

Using the forthcoming WHO/I-DAIR frameworks to develop human resource plans for ministries of health. These plans should include an opportunities and gaps assessment of educational institutions’ ability to train the workforce in the needed competencies.

Technological innovation will not slow down, but whether we have the governance and human resources to apply it in a sustainable, equitable manner will determine our ability to transform health systems for the better.

We invite you to check out the following video interviews with Steve Ollis and Christina Villella captured at Global Digital Health Forum.


By Christina Villella


This viewpoint was originally posted by JSI on 17 January 2023. 

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