Bringing public health into the digital age

The COVID-19 pandemic has left an indelible mark on our lives and communities. It also enhanced the power and potential of digital technologies to advance public health.

In fact, countries that have benefited from digital innovations have been in a better position.

Venues with central disease reporting can track the spread of COVID and warn municipalities when it’s time to adjust public health measures or boost hospital capacity. Whereas countries with electronic medical records and digital certificates have had an easier time rolling out COVID vaccines and designing outreach efforts for vulnerable and at-risk populations.

Digital technologies have also had an enormous impact on our patients: those who had access to digital tools benefited, while those who did not experienced a greater impact from the disruption of health services.

Where telemedicine is available, patients can stay in touch with their doctors, even during lockdown, allowing them to continue receiving needed medical care and treatments. Simple messaging and video apps have helped patients get the instructions and prescriptions they need from the safety and convenience of home.

Shouldn’t this be our new normal?

Other sectors have always benefited from digital technologies.

Mobile money transfers and digital transactions have pushed millions of disadvantaged people into the financial system.

Virtual education has expanded access to education—including for individuals with learning differences—and enabled more people to earn degrees in their own time.

Digital solutions have helped public transport systems operate more efficiently and improve the passenger experience through real-time tracking.

It is time for the health sector to embrace digital technologies. By modernizing the way we deliver care, we can make our health workers’ jobs easier, improve the patient experience and strengthen our health systems.

To help ministries of health look to the future, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has developed guidelines for the digital transformation of the health sector. This document sets out clear priorities and considerations for ensuring that health system improvements are just and sustainable.

First, it is important that everyone has access to the Internet with sufficient bandwidth for teleconsultations and other online services. As more and more people rely on digital technologies to gather information and interact with health systems – whether that’s making appointments or conducting virtual consultations – universal connectivity has become an important determinant of health.

Universal connectivity is key to achieving our goal of health for all. However, across the Americas, 30% of people still lack access to the Internet. And within countries, there are still stark disparities in internet connectivity across urban and rural divisions. Without internet access, the population cannot benefit from digital developments, and the most vulnerable will be left behind.

This is why we must also promote digital inclusion.

While many people have become accustomed to gadgets like computers and phones, access to and familiarity with these technologies varies by age, income, and region. When embracing digital tools, countries must consider the needs of all people to avoid widening gaps in care.

Countries should pay particular attention to ensuring that digital solutions are adapted to the social, cultural, environmental and economic conditions where they will be applied.

It is equally important to ensure that our health workers, everywhere, are adequately trained in these techniques.

Data is the bedrock of good public health. It reveals trends, gaps, and opportunities for targeting interventions. So as countries strengthen systems for patient registration, disease tracking, and surveillance, they must ensure that data can be broken down by age, gender, ethnicity, and regions so that vulnerable populations are not left behind.

The real-time data provided by robust health information systems can improve how health systems are managed as they can detect problems and identify where additional resources may be needed. That’s why it’s important to integrate public health data and make it accessible across different platforms, so that local and national health systems have access to the information they need—at the right time and in the right format—to make decisions.

To encourage greater public health collaboration, it is critical that public health data be made available to stakeholders responsible for programmatic priorities, funding, and actions.

Countries have no choice but to bring our health systems into the digital age, but doing so will require sustained investments, political commitment, and a willingness to work with other sectors.

Technologies have shaped the world around us, and now we must harness their power to transform our health systems to build a more resilient, safer, and healthier future.

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