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Reflecting on the role of digital health and transformation during this year’s UN General Assembly

World leaders have been convening in New York over the past week for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) high-level meetings. Here at CHISU, we’re closely following these discussions and their outcomes so we can apply our expertise and accelerate action to strengthen health information systems across the globe.

CHISU Program Director Steve Ollis has been virtually attending UNGA, where he’s participating in events like the Science Summit. CHISU Editor Lauren Eller sat down with him to get his thoughts on this year’s assembly and the importance of highlighting digital health throughout.

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How do you see CHISU’s work fitting in with UNGA’s focus this year, especially around achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

The Sustainable Development Goals are very important and the goals have been agreed upon, and in order to measure ourselves, we need good-quality data. This is where the work of CHISU and others in this space becomes increasingly necessary, because data in the past had been slow, hard to come by, and not of good quality. So as the field has matured, as more and more countries have gone electronic, as the infrastructure has improved, then the data to inform and to continuously track progress toward the SDGs has become more easily available.

Now that this data is available, what is required in order to effectively transform health systems to be able to reach these targets is data use—not just tracking ourselves once a year, but actually using this data at the national level and increasingly also at the subnational, facility, and community levels to support the decisions that individual clients, health workers, health facilities managers, and district health teams make in planning their activities. 

I think our work at CHISU is unique in how we support the overall country health information system, at all sources of data, including data from the public and the private sectors and the community, with our focus on how that data can be connected and brought together for—and used by—decision makers. 

You mentioned this idea of transforming the health system. Is there anything about digital transformation you’d like to say in terms of CHISU’s work and how it will be addressed this year at UNGA?

Digital transformation in the health space is something that’s been talked about for a while, but people aren’t always exactly clear on what that means. There’s been a big interest in digital technologies, which are a component; you can’t have digital transformation without digital technologies. But you also can’t have digital transformation without investments in the people and processes that are going to use the tools. 

I’m looking forward to hearing more from countries that have undertaken digital transformation and moved beyond a digital transformation strategy, and are actually now implementing this. And to hear of how they’re approaching change management, reworking the job descriptions to incorporate use of digital tools, and use these digital processes. So I’m looking forward to hearing how we move from digital transformation in health as a lofty vision and getting into the nuts and bolts of what’s involved—as well as sharing some of the bumps along the way. 

I think digital transformation aligns well with the work we do as CHISU. We focus on systems and scaling and sustaining them, but then we also have a big emphasis on the interoperability, governance, policies, working groups, and coordination that truly enable those to work. And then a real obsession of ours is on the data use, because without data use, there is no return on investments that have been made in the systems and tools. If you just have systems, and you only have tools, you will only increase the workload on health workers and spend money without seeing the benefits to the health system.

Another phrase you were just mentioning is the role of health data governance. Is there anything around CHISU’s work and what we’ve learned around health data governance that might show up at UNGA?

Data governance is a critical point because technology has made data available so that it can be readily seen by individuals, clients, health workers, and transmitted freely from point to point. So then the importance of health data governance is to ensure that there’s trust in the data, and trust in the health system. So what does that mean? It means that we need to ensure that decision makers and health workers have trust in the data, that the data is going to be of good quality so that they can use it to make good decisions. 

We also need to be able to ensure the communities and the populations that these health systems serve, that they can have confidence in the system. They need to be sure that the data they provide to the health system is going to be well taken care of, is going to be used appropriately, is only going to be shared with the right people, and is only going to be shared in accordance with the national laws.

What do you hope will come out of UNGA in relation to the transformation of health systems, and how might that impact CHISU’s work going forward?

I think very frequently, we get high-level speakers, which is very important; the political leadership cannot be overstated. But what we truly need to do is ensure that the users of these tools are having their voices elevated.

So, yes, there’s infrastructure that needs to be built, national planning is important, there’s a lot of strategic-level work and high-level advocacy that needs to be done, but I think I’d like to ensure that the voices of the users and of the clients themselves can be better represented, particularly at high-level events like this. Because until we are elevating those voices and putting them at the same level as the political and planning level, then we’re only going to get one perspective and are leaving out the millions and billions of people whose lives are affected every day by these tools. 

Anything else you’d like to mention?

The last thing I want to highlight is the importance of events like this. It’s incredibly valuable to come together both in-person and virtually to share ideas and to collaborate. It’s easy to get focused just on what you’re doing and miss opportunities to leverage great work and great ideas that other people have. So I think it’s important from the perspective of implementing partners, of funding partners, and of the governments themselves to really be able to learn from what other people are doing, and think hard about how other people’s work can be applied in their context, to look for places where perhaps there’s duplication, and then importantly to look for where their investments have been made that can be leveraged and where collaboration opportunities are in the future. Because there’s simply not enough money to do all the work that we need to do, we need to identify where we can more effectively collaborate and share the resources that are available.

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