Investing in the digital transformation of health services is the most effective way to build back better after COVID19

– by Frank Smith, Campaign Lead, Transform Health @FDSmith_

Transform Health welcomes the G20 leaders’ recognition that “Well-functioning, value-based, inclusive, and resilient health systems are critical to moving towards achieving Universal Health Coverage (UHC)” and G20 leaders’ reconfirmation of “the importance of UHC financing in developing countries”.

The commitments to UHC set out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are critical to ensuring the world is able to effectively prepare, prevent, protect and respond to outbreaks of infectious diseases such as COVID-19 and realise people’s right to health. 

However, this commitment will not be realised unless the G20 and leaders from across the world invest in the equitable digital transformation of health systems and the effective and responsible use of health data to ensure all populations are able to access decent health services. 

G20 leaders have recognised that “connectivity, digital technologies, and policies have played a key role in strengthening our response to the pandemic”. We now need to expand the digitalisation that has taken place in response to COVID-19 in many countries to cover other dimensions of health system strengthening, particularly health systems in low and middle-income countries, to ensure everyone is able to benefit from this transformation. 

Digitalising health systems and services will require governments to develop effective regulation that governs the collection and use of health data as a public good while protecting the rights and integrity of the individual. The trust deficit that exists between governments and other institutions, and citizens in relation to the collection, storage and use of data, even in situations of emergency, needs to be addressed through stronger regulation. A global governance framework on the use of health data would go a long way in addressing this trust deficit. Governments also need to ensure that their citizens are provided with enough information and have sufficient knowledge about data and digital technology to be able to meaningfully engage in government priority setting and to be able to use digital tools and technology to access information and services that would enable them to manage their own health and wellbeing more effectively. 

Over recent years the digitalisation of health systems in low and middle-income countries has often suffered from underinvestment and a lack of effective coordination among donors. The result has been a multiplicity of pilot projects that have failed to make it to scale. Donors need to learn from successful initiatives such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria and the Global Financing Facility which collaborate to ensure sufficient levels of funding is provided and channeled through one mechanism aimed at supporting national health plans. These, in turn, need to be developed with multiple stakeholders, particularly representatives of front line staff and of youth, women and marginalized communities who are often excluded from planning and implementation of new approaches to health systems that impact on their lives. 

COVID-19 presents world leaders and citizens everywhere with a set of challenges and opportunities to work together to ensure the digital transformation of health systems and the effective use of health data serve all segments of the population. Only by working together will we reduce the potential impact of future threats.