WHO releases guidance on digital health technologies

16th May 2019 by Alex Teckkam

The World Health Organisation (WHO) released their first guidance on digital technologies in healthcare last month. Given the vast scale of the digital health industry, the recommendations in this guideline cover just a small subset of digital interventions, with the intention to expand in future versions. Reviewing the evidence and assessing the risks, the WHO hopes that this guidance will help policy-makers to make informed investments, supporting all areas of the industry from providers to patients. 

Digital technologies continue to evolve the world around us, and healthcare has been no exception. From artificial reality (AR) aiding diagnosis to virtual reality (VR) for healthcare professional training, we continue to see innovators developing new technologies to shape the industry. But how many of these innovations actually have a strong evidence base? How do we know if they truly have a tangible benefit? These, amongst others, were the questions that the new WHO guidance sought to address.

The recommendations covered a wide range of digital technologies:

  • Birth notification via mobile devices
  • Death notification via mobile devices
  • Stock notification and commodity management via mobile devices
  • Client-to-provider telemedicine
  • Provider-to-provider telemedicine
  • Targeted client communication via mobile devices
  • Health worker decision support via mobile devices
  • Digital tracking of clients’ health status and services combined with decision support and targeted client communication
  • Digital provision of training and educational content to health workers via mobile devices/mobile learning

For some recommendations, the WHO suggested that digital solutions should act as a complement to traditional methods, rather than as a replacement. For others, the ability for the health system to support implementation in an integrated manner was highlighted as key. Indeed, it is important to recognise that digital health interventions cannot substitute key components needed by a health system, such as workforce, leadership and governance.

The WHO recognised that while recommendations were based on distinct digital interventions, the whole picture is more convoluted and interlinked. The executive summary provides an interesting infographic explaining some of these links between the recommendations.  The publication of the first WHO guidance on digital technologies is a key step in recognising the importance of digital health advancements around us today. It is also important in ensuring that health systems can reliably choose technologies that are effective and work for the people who need them.By Alex Teckkam