By David Kipkorir
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently released first recommendations offering guidance on how the global healthcare industry can use digital health technology accessible via mobile phones, tablets and computers to improve people’s health and essential services around the world.
“Harnessing the power of digital technologies is essential for achieving universal health coverage,” WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a press release.
He said digital technologies are not ends in themselves but are vital tools to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable.
The list of 10 recommendations is based on a “critical evaluation of the evidence on emerging digital interventions that are contributing to health system improvements” and is the result of a two-year-long research project by WHO on digital technologies, including consulting with global experts, to produce recommendations on how such tools may be used for maximum impact.
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.
The guidelines point to the potential for improving civil registrations and vital statistics by enabling birth and death notifications via mobile devices and reach under-registered populations.
WHO plans to release future versions of its guideline to reflect a broader scope of digital health interventions.
It also recommends implementing provider-to-provider and patient-to-provider telemedicine services to address patients’ accessibility to health facilities and providers, particularly in underserved communities.
WHO officials point out that telemedicine is a valuable complement to face-to-face-interactions, but should not replace them entirely.
“It is also important that consultations are conducted by qualified health workers and that the privacy of individuals’ health information is maintained,” WHO said.
According to WHO officials, one digital intervention already having positive effects in some areas is sending reminders to pregnant women to attend antenatal care appointments and having children return for vaccinations.
Other digital approaches that WHO reviewed include decision support tools to guide health workers as they provide care and enabling individuals and health workers to remotely communicate and consult on health issues.
“Digital health is not a silver bullet,” Bernardo Mariano, WHO’s chief information officer, said in a statement.
He said WHO is working to make sure it’s used as effectively as possible. This means ensuring that it adds value to the health workers and individuals using these technologies, takes into account the infrastructural limitations and that there is proper coordination.
The guidelines takes into consideration the challenges facing the health systems interventions in member countries and the potential of digital health in achieving universal health coverage (UHC).
“The use of digital technologies offers new opportunities to improve people’s health,” says Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at WHO. “But the evidence also highlights challenges in the impact of some interventions.”
She said if digital technologies are to be sustained and integrated into health systems, they must be able to demonstrate long-term improvements over the traditional ways of delivering health services.
The recommendations points to the potential to improve stock management. Digital technologies enable health workers to communicate more efficiently on the status of commodity stocks and gaps.
However, notification alone is not enough to improve commodity management; health systems also must respond and take action in a timely manner for replenishing needed commodities.
“Digital interventions, depend heavily on the context and ensuring appropriate design,” warns Dr Garrett Mehl, WHO scientist in digital innovations and research.
“This includes structural issues in settings where they are being used, available infrastructure, the health needs they are trying to address, and the ease of use of the technology itself”, he adds.
Kenya is well placed to capitalise on its mobile penetration and digital ecosystem to speed up its journey towards achieving UHC.
The new wave of mobile technology is having a spectacular impact in the way health care is delivered in Kenya.
Known as mHealth, mobile health technology has a tremendous potential to strengthen health systems in the country through better access to knowledge and information, improved service delivery and reduced response time during crises.
For the past decade, the lack of a stable internet and telephone network in developing countries has hampered the use of eHealth to improve access to health care.
Nowadays, a swift explosion in mobile technology, particularly in the Kenya, is finally making a number of eHealth initiatives possible via mobile networks and devices.
The penetration of mobile telephone networks in Kenya now surpasses other infrastructure such as paved roads and electricity, and dwarfs cable internet deployment.
The country well known for its leadership in a successful mobile phone money transfer (Mpesa) has seen a surge in the number of mobile based health application.
The innovations include MyDawa, i-PUSH, Afya pap and many others that are poised to change the healthcare landscape in Kenya.
The Ministry of Health has developed an electronic health (eHealth) policy which will enable patients to access some care and treatment from doctors and other care-givers through their mobile phone devices.
The Kenya National eHealth Policy 2016-2030 is in line with the ongoing global concerted efforts aimed at transforming access, care delivery, patient experiences and health outcomes through electronic health.