Digital health solutions can include broad categories, such as mobile health (mHealth), health information technology (IT), wearable devices, telehealth and telemedicine, and personalized medicine. Digital health technologies use computing platforms, connectivity, software, and sensors for health care and related uses. These technologies span a wide range of uses, from applications in general wellness to applications as a medical device.1
They also facilitate the collection of an individual’s health information in different settings and the rapid and accurate transfer of information between patients and healthcare professionals, as well as between medical disciplines.
Digitalisation can be considered one of the most important drivers of recent innovations in diagnostics and medicine.2 With its Global Strategy on Digital Health 2020-2025, the World Health Organisation recognises the important contribution that the digital transformation of healthcare can make to enhancing health outcomes through improved medical diagnosis, data-based treatment decisions, digital therapeutics, and through creating more evidence-based knowledge, skills and competence for healthcare professionals.3
The amount of medical data is doubling approximately every 73 days4 – which is more than any medical professional or health system can manage. Digitalisation, artificial intelligence, and decision support tools can unlock the medical value of these vast amounts of medical information and support clinical decision-makers in understanding, interpreting and storing data - with accuracy and speed.
Data-driven digital health solutions have an important role to play in solving complex healthcare challenges and providing sustainable solutions to help improve patient care. For patients, they can also provide enhanced access to care and flexibility of services. For professionals, these solutions can help ensure the appropriate use of diagnostic tests for effective and coordinated decision-making5,6 and provide support in improving operational efficiency, taking effective treatment and monitoring decisions, and reducing overall workload.
In the face of a myriad of global health challenges, there is an urgent need to transform how the ever-growing volume of health data is managed and how care is delivered. Rising cases of chronic diseases and ageing populations, as well as the enormous financial pressure felt by health systems everywhere are jeopardizing the provision of targeted and effective healthcare.
In addition, health systems everywhere are stretched to keep up-to-date with advances in technology and science to achieve the best possible outcome for patients. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the importance of digital health solutions to assist with patient needs during lockdown, particularly in the areas of diagnosis, monitoring and treatments.
At the same time, the pandemic has also highlighted the challenges that remain in effectively applying digital health solutions for the benefit of the patient. Digital health initiatives often remain fragmented, resulting in inefficiencies for healthcare professionals and poor delivery of services. Unequal access – such as cost, transport and infrastructure – to available solutions, both within and between countries, further diminishes the full potential digital health solutions could bring to patients. Many countries also continue facing significant challenges when it comes to technology ownership or privacy and data security.
A significant gap is particularly persistent in low- and middle-income countries, where there is a struggle to enable the uptake of digital health solutions. This divide is caused by a lack of sufficient resources and infrastructure to support digital transformation.7 The full potential of digital health solutions is further limited by a lack of evidence-based digital health standards, insufficient frameworks for data privacy and governance and unresolved ethical considerations such as user consent. In addition, payers and policy-makers are facing rapidly changing global and local environments that make it difficult to anticipate and manage healthcare governance systems.8,9
A new approach to funding, regulating and delivering healthcare is needed to fully harness available technologies, ensuring they are used effectively, reliably and safely, both now and in the future.
Digital health solutions can empower people to better manage their health, support healthcare professionals to diagnose and treat disease more confidently, and help institutions and health systems unlock greater efficiency. Yet, in fragmented healthcare systems, the full potential of data-driven insights remains largely untapped and does not benefit all equally. Making the most of digital health solutions will require changes to how everyone (people and healthcare providers) thinks and works.