The COVID-19 pandemic has left an indelible mark on our lives and on our societies. It has also reinforced the power and potential of digital technologies to advance public health.
Indeed, countries that leveraged digital innovations were better off.
Places with centralized disease reporting could track the spread of COVID and warn municipalities when it was time to adjust public health measures or reinforce hospital capacity while countries with electronic medical records and digital certificates had an easier time rolling out COVID vaccines and tailoring outreach efforts to vulnerable and at-risk populations.
Digital technologies also had an enormous impact for our patients – those who had access to digital tools benefited, while those who didn’t suffered a greater impact from disruption in health services.
In places where telemedicine was available, patients could stay in touch with their doctors, even amid lockdowns, allowing them to continue receiving necessary care and medical treatments. Simple messaging and video apps helped patients get the guidance and prescription they needed from the safety and comfort of home.
Shouldn’t this be our new normal?
Other sectors have long benefited from digital technologies.
Mobile cash transfers and digital transactions have brought millions of underserved people into the financial system.
Virtual schooling has expanded access to education – including for individuals with learning differences – and enabled more people to earn degrees on their own time.
Digital solutions have helped public transit systems operate more efficiently and improve the rider experience with real-time tracking.
It’s time for the health sector to embrace digital technologies. By modernizing how we provide 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 Guiding Principles for the Digital Transformation of the Health Sector. This document lays out clear priorities and considerations to ensure health system improvements are equitable and sustainable.
First, it’s important that everyone can access the internet with sufficient bandwidth for teleconsultations and other online services.
As more and more people rely on digital technologies to gather information and to engage with health systems – whether it’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. Yet across the Americas, 30 percent of people still lack access to the internet. And within countries, stark disparities in internet connectivity persist across urban and rural divides. Without access to the internet, populations cannot benefit from digital advancements, and the most vulnerable will fall further behind.
That’s why we must also promote digital inclusion.
While many people have grown accustomed to tools like computers and phones, access and familiarity with these technologies vary 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 special attention to ensuring that digital solutions are adapted to the social, cultural, environmental, and economic conditions where they will be applied.
Equally important is ensuring that our health workers, everywhere, are adequately trained in these technologies.
Data is the bedrock of good public health. It reveals trends, gaps and opportunities to target interventions. So as countries bolster patient registration systems, disease tracing, and surveillance, they must ensure that data can be broken down by age, gender, ethnicity and regions, so vulnerable populations aren’t left behind.
Real-time data made available through robust health information systems can improve how health systems are managed since it can reveal problems and pinpoint where additional resources may be needed.
That’s why it’s important that public health data be integrated and have open access across different platforms, so local and national health systems can access the information they need – at the right time and in the right format – to make decisions.
To encourage greater public health collaboration, it’s critical that public health data is made available to the stakeholders who are responsible for priorities, funding, and programmatic actions.
Countries have no option but to bring our health systems into the digital age, but that will require sustained investments, political commitment, and a willingness to work with other sectors.
Technologies have shaped the world around us. Now, we must harness their power to transform our health systems to build a safer, healthier and more resilient future.
• Dr. Carissa Etienne is the director of the Pan American Health Organization.