Report finds digital divide in healthcare provision

Many countries across Europe and Asia lack a plan for boosting digital health literacy, study from World Health Organization finds, adding that those with limited skills could benefit the most

Only half of European and central Asian countries have policies in place to improve digital health literacy, according to a report by the European arm of the World Health Organization.

The analysis revealed that despite most WHO Europe members having a national digital health strategy, there are significant gaps to be considered. Only over half of member states have a strategy to regulate the use of big data and advanced analytics in the health sector, with a minority having guidance on developing digital health interventions, which are vital to ensure safety.

The report outlined three prerequisites for strengthening digital health systems:

  • Access to reliable, low-cost broadband for every household and every community.
  • Ensuring health data is safe and secure to help build and maintain trust in digital health tools and interventions.
  • Interoperability of digital health tools, including electronic patient records, within and between countries.

On tackling the digital divide, researchers stated an “uneven deployment and uptake of digital solutions” as the major cause, preventing millions from benefiting from digital health technology.

Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said: “It is a sad irony that people with limited or no digital skills are often the ones who stand to gain the most from digital health tools and interventions – like older persons or rural communities. Addressing this imbalance is necessary for the digital transformation of the health sector.”

WHO director for country health policies and systems for Europe Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat said “Our report clearly shows both our progress and where we now need to focus our attention: on making sure people can trust digital health tools, and that everyone, everywhere, can access them equally. This requires a particular focus on women and girls who are, in many societies, often excluded when it comes to accessing the latest advances in technology.”

Speaking on the importance of the report, Kluge, said: “The European region can – and should – be a leader in digital health. In many countries, digital health programmes have so far developed on an ad-hoc basis and this needs to change. To realise the full potential of digital health, it needs to be seen as a strategic long-term investment rather than an add-on or a luxury for the few. We have exciting, life-changing opportunities before us, underpinned by the principles of equity and health for all.”

Published at the Second WHO in Europe Symposium on the Future of Health Systems in a Digital Era in Portugal, the report recognised the pandemic accelerated innovation in the use of digital health tools and policies yet warned there is still a long road ahead.

Co-hosted by the Portuguese Ministry of Health, the symposium held over 500 stakeholders, including government representatives and digital health experts, where they discussed the best possible route for digital transformation in the health sector. 

With the report, the WHO Europe looks to maximise the advantages of evolving technology while balancing any potential risks these innovations may hold.

This story originally appeared on PublicTechnology sister publication Holyrood

Sofia Villegas

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