WHO releases first guideline on digital health interventions

| | New Delhi
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WHO releases first guideline on digital health interventions

Friday, 19 April 2019 | Archana Jyoti | New Delhi

Even as India is looking towards e-health as one of the health solutions for the people in the remote areas where medical care is yet to reach, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has cautioned that in such health setups, consultations should be conducted by qualified health workers and that the privacy of an individual’s health information is maintained.

In its newly released ‘first guideline on digital health interventions’, the WHO has, nevertheless, recommended digital health technology, accessible via mobile phones, tablets and computers, to improve people’s health and essential services, as an essential medium for achieving universal health coverage.

“Harnessing the power of digital technologies is essential for achieving universal health coverage,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Ultimately, digital technologies are not ends in themselves; they are vital tools to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable.”

Over the past two years, WHO systematically reviewed evidence on digital technologies and consulted with experts from around the world to produce recommendations on some key ways such tools may be used for maximum impact on health systems and people’s health.

The WHO noted that 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 reviewed include decision-support tools to guide health workers as they provide care; and enabling individuals and health workers to communicate and consult on health issues from across different locations.

“The use of digital technologies offers new opportunities to improve people’s health,” added Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at WHO. However, there is a word of caution. “But the evidence also highlights challenges in the impact of some interventions,” she said while Dr Garrett Mehl, WHO scientist in digital innovations and research warned that digital interventions, depend heavily on the context and ensuring appropriate design.

The  WHO also said that people also must be assured that they are not being put at risk because they have accessed information on sensitive health topics, such as sexual and reproductive health issues.

The guideline also recommends telemedicine, which allows people living in remote locations to obtain health services by using mobile phones, web portals, or other digital tools. WHO also pointed out that this is a valuable complement to face-to-face-interactions, but it cannot 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.

The WHO guideline also emphasized on the importance of reaching vulnerable populations, and ensuring that digital health does not endanger them in any way.

India, on its part has come with a draft legislation, the Digital Information Security in Healthcare Act (DISHA) which intends to ensure the confidentiality and reliability of digital health data by regulating how they are collected, stored, transmitted, and used.

 Rohit MA, co-founder and Managing Director, Cloudnine Group of Hospitals too have a word of caution. As per a report, he opined that  while Data protection and patient privacy have been spoken and been disused at several forums, India’s blooming healthcare sector could become a victim of its own success, if it fails to ensure Data protection to its patients.

Despite all challenges, the technology is all set to grow in healthcare sector. “With India as a market demanding better healthcare facilities, the telemedicine industry, considered to be a niche, is expected to grow over 20 per cent and cross $32 million by 2020,” says the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM).

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