Viewpoint: In the Post Pandemic World, Global Health Security Hinges on Digital Public Health Advancements

March 7, 2023

Bandar AlKnawy, MD, FRPC, and Soumitra S. Bhuyan, PhD, MPH explore health security and possible fixes in this latest opinion piece written for Becker’s Hospital Review.

The COVID-19 pandemic magnified the critical need for a robust digital health infrastructure to address global health threats. The global community must think and act before the next pandemic or other major global health threats. Healthcare systems worldwide have yet to invest systematically in building the required digital infrastructure. A recent national survey in the United States found that only six percent of the health systems have fully developed a digital health roadmap and dedicated leader despite more than 90% of healthcare leaders in the survey believed that a digital health strategy is essential for addressing the four pillars of the Quadrupole Aim– enhancing patient experience, improving population health, reducing costs, and boosting provider satisfaction. 

The COVID-19 pandemic magnified the critical need for a robust digital health infrastructure to address global health threats. The global community must think and act before the next pandemic or other major global health threats. Healthcare systems worldwide have yet to invest systematically in building the required digital infrastructure. A recent national survey in the United States found that only six percent of the health systems have fully developed a digital health roadmap and dedicated leader despite more than 90% of healthcare leaders in the survey believed that a digital health strategy is essential for addressing the four pillars of the Quadrupole Aim– enhancing patient experience, improving population health, reducing costs, and boosting provider satisfaction. 

Digital health services’ value was recognized years ago. In 2005, the World Health Assembly urged member states to create a strategic plan to establish eHealth services and promote affordable universal access. During the pandemic, digital health services became the norm for many patients and healthcare providers. Global health leaders can capitalize on this momentum by building digital health infrastructures while adapting to evolving technology. However, for the digital health ecosystem to succeed, the global health community should also focus on building public trust, enhancing communication to fight misinformation, strengthening data reporting capabilities, additional workforce training for digital health, and building effective and ethical surveillance systems, as outlined in The Riyadh Declaration drafted during Riyadh Global Digital Health Summit.  

The global health community must work together to confront misinformation in the media and social media. According to the World Health Organization, unverified news and misinformation that spread rapidly on social media seriously threatened the COVID-19 response. Another study estimated about 35% of forwarded messages regarding COVID-19 on WhatsApp were based on falsehoods, while another 20% mixed true and false information. Creating a fact-checking culture with speed is essential to counter misinformation and improve citizens’ digital literacy to recognize falsehoods.  

Gaining the public’s trust during a health crisis requires effective communication for people to accept and follow preventative guidelines. False information about COVID-19 spread on social media greatly affected the faith in the media and government information sources. A high level of confidence in the government can ultimately reduce cases and deaths during a pandemic. Data-driven, evidence-based communication, and transparency can help build citizens’ trust. This would involve acknowledging the evolving knowledge about the health crisis and differing risks among the population and communicating in ways citizens of different cultural and social backgrounds would understand and embrace.  

Advanced tools and techniques, including artificial intelligence, depend on collecting significant amounts of complex data that accurately reflect the health status of diverse global populations. Standardizing the global collection and sharing of infectious disease health data would aid the healthcare community’s response. Collecting and exchanging this data is complicated by the various forms of health data and inconsistent reporting and clinical practices. Global health leaders must build consensus to design standardized tools to capture high-quality data, standardize diverse data, and enhance our ability to learn from it.    

Digital tools can collect health information locally and globally, incorporating data from various sources, including medical and consumer devices and traditional public health data registries, claims, and health records. Over the past decade, about 1,200 U.S. digital health companies have received a cumulative $33 billion investment, from $1.1 billion in 2011 to $14 billion in 2021. Moreover, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently began approving digital therapeutics, and consumer-facing digital health tool options are rapidly growing. This highlights the need for interactive dashboards and self-checking services to help with disease prevention, testing, management, and vaccination.  

Healthcare professionals also must be equipped with the knowledge, skills, and training to use these technologies effectively. The rapid change during Covid-19 revealed gaps in the infrastructure, workforce skills and capabilities, and digital education. A digitally trained workforce becomes vital to any healthcare system in a crisis, long-term planning, and solving existing challenges. 

An effective public health response relies on robust surveillance systems to detect and monitor outbreaks. However, surveillance systems raise ethical and privacy issues. Collecting and sharing personal health information can lead to discrimination for some patients and other negative consequences such as stigma. Clear guidelines and regulations for data collection, use, and sharing for disease surveillance will be necessary. These guidelines should be based on transparency, accountability, and respect for individual autonomy and privacy.  

Global surveillance systems are vital in detecting and responding to infectious diseases, bioterrorism, and other public health emergencies. However, maintaining, funding, and innovating surveillance systems remains a continual challenge for the global health community. New technologies and approaches can improve the accuracy and speed of disease detection. Artificial intelligence and machine learning can help identify patterns and trends that human analysts might miss. It is also necessary to ensure access to various datasets and registries across international borders, support surveillance and detection of new health threats, and develop international consensus on tracking methods. 

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted digital health technology’s crucial role in global health security. Getting more nations and healthcare systems to strengthen their digital health infrastructure would significantly enhance the ability to address future pandemics and health threats.  

Bandar AlKnawy, MD, FRCPC, President of King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences in, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Soumitra S. Bhuyan, PhD, MPH is a Visiting Research Fellow at the School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University and an Associate Professor at Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University.

Read Original Article 3/3/23

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