New Report Warns Against Fragmentation in Digital Health Services, Calls for Cooperation on Global Framework for the COVID-19 Era

May 26, 2020

WASHINGTON—Digitizing health care systems with information and communication technologies holds tremendous potential to improve public health, particularly in developing nations, according to a new report released today by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the world’s leading think tank forscience and technology policy. 

Technologies such as electronic health records, mobile computing, artificial intelligence, big data, and genomics allow researchers and health care providers to deliver more personalized and coordinated care, and better, faster treatments at lower cost. But as countries develop their own technology standards and data-protection rules to govern these new health care products and services, they risk fragmenting the nascent global system of digital health. This would prevent healthcare companies and research organizations from fully leveraging health data and digital technologies to provide better services and care internationally. 

To create a globally interoperable framework for enabling digital health products and services in an era of pandemics and beyond, the report calls for greater coordination in building out the foundational elements such as compatible digital healthstrategies, digital skills, requisite ICT infrastructure, and data governance.

Digital health holds transformational potential for health care around the world, and many digital health products are already proven, readily available, and adaptable to all kinds of countries,” said Nigel Cory, associate director of trade policy at ITIF, who co-authored the report. “More importantly, digital health can help low- and middle-income countries overcome traditional barriers to better health care, especially with staffing and other physical resource constraints.”

The report argues that a global digital health framework is only at a nascent stage, as policymakers in all countries are first dealing with the challenge of adapting technology to their own domestic health frameworks. International organizations are also just starting to develop the common principles, best practices, and tools to help late adopters catch up with leading countries, which means domestic frameworks risk fragmenting away from global standards. 

A successful global framework would require low- and middle-income countries to work with international partners on key foundations: national strategies, skills, information and communications technology infrastructure, and governance systems that balance innovation and widespread data sharing with data protection.

There is wide disparity in progress in this area among low and middle-income nations, with several important countries having no formal national plans. The digitalhealth system will not achieve anywhere near their full potential absent a plan that provides the necessary resources, coordination, cooperation, and leadership,” said Philip Stevens, executive director of the Geneva Network, who co-authored thereport. “These plans need to be holistic, in part, as each country’s situation will be somewhat different, including the considerable complexity that comes from integrating digital technologies with legacy health systems.”

Read the report.