The World Health Organization has released its first-ever set of guidelines on digital health interventions.
The guidelines, targeted toward government agencies and public health practitioners, outline 10 recommendations on how to use digital health tools to support patients' health outcomes and access to care. The WHO developed the guidelines and recommendations over the past two years.
Recommendations include using mobile devices for clinical decision support tools, telemedicine and supply-chain management.
"Harnessing the power of digital technologies is essential for achieving universal health coverage," Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO's director-general, said in a statement. "Ultimately, digital technologies are not ends in themselves; they are vital tools to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable."
Dr. Christopher Longhurst, chief information officer at UC San Diego Health, noted the broad look at digital health the WHO used in its guidelines, including recommendations like birth notifications and inventory management alongside what U.S. practitioners tend to associate with digital health, such as telemedicine. "It's smart that they've opened the umbrella broadly," he said.
For each of the 10 recommendations, the WHO provides an evidence review and an overview of implementation considerations, as well as limitations for what contexts the group advocates use of the technology. In the case of patient-to-provider telemedicine, for example, the WHO emphasized that it should complement, and not replace, in-person care.
That's important to understand, since while digital health has the potential to address barriers in access to care, it "shares many of the underlying challenges faced by health system interventions in general, including poor management, insufficient training, infrastructural limitations, and poor access to equipment and supplies," according to the WHO.
That's where the guidelines come in—as a way to help government agencies address implementation challenges, such as data management, patient privacy and employee training. Some of these will vary by country. In the U.S., for example, regulatory and reimbursement barriers might prove more challenging than technological ones, according to Longhurst.
"Think about how care is delivered in Canada, France or Australia, where you have national payer systems, and so the incentives drive value-based care," he said.
While this marks the first time the WHO has released guidelines on digital health interventions, it's not the group's first foray into the space. The group encourages developers to register relevant projects with the WHO's digital health atlas, an online repository that helps governments monitor digital investments in their country and assess best practices across the globe.
"It's very important to understand the high-value use cases for digital health and how best to address the needs of local stakeholder groups, while protecting privacy and maximizing adoption," Dr. John Halamka, CIO at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and international healthcare innovation professor at Harvard Medical School, wrote in an email. "Many digital health interventions in the past have failed because they did not have the benefit of such a guideline."
The WHO said it is currently developing a global strategy to help countries understand how digital health tools can support broad healthcare coverage. The group plans to release the digital health strategy in 2020.