From Digital Health Pilots to National Health Information Systems, Looking Back and the Road Ahead

December 7th, 2020 | Viewpoint

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It’s December, and as it has been for the last seven years, this means it’s time for the Global Digital Health Forum. This year’s event, like everything else, will be different. Instead of last year’s 700-in-person event in Washington, DC, we will meet virtually, with a carefully calibrated calendar designed to reach a more diverse set of stakeholders where they live and work around the world.

Since I started working in digital health 11 years ago, the field has undergone tremendous change. We have moved from pilots involving a handful of clinics and community health workers to nationally scaled systems and information architectures. National health information system strategies have been developedin some cases with costs attachedand are being implemented, and countries are moving from assessing readiness for digital health to actually transforming to digitally-enabled health systems. The promise of unlocking key operational and predictive insights from these digital data sets through machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies is being realized.

Yet despite these exciting developments, the benefits of digital health have not reached everyone. Access to information and high-quality health care is not universal, and barriers to literacy, power, and connectivity persist. That’s why I am particularly interested in this year’s forum, which is themed Digital Health – Making it Work for Everyone. As we mix and mingle with thousands of practitioners, ministries of health, and technologists from around the world, I hope we will be learning about how countries have leveraged technology to extend the reach of digital tools, evenand especiallyduring the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year, I am attending as the project director of Country Health Information Systems and Data Use, which is one of USAID’s Office of Health Systems flagship health information systems and data projects. JSI is leading a talented consortium that works globally to strengthen governance and the enabling environment of host-country health information systems; increase the availability and interoperability of information systems; increase demand for data and use of information; and enhance the capabilities of local partners to sustain investments made in digital systems. The project works across all disease and program areas and seeks to strengthen the overall national health information systems and describe and measure their evolution. We anticipate picking up key insights as to how governments are translating theory into practice along with honest reflections of how these new technologies are affecting their health systems and what data security measures are being put in place.

I also look forward to hearing from panels on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and learning how leaders around the world are working to diversify the voices, leadership, management, and reach of digital health. The forum is also an opportunity to hear updates on peer learning and knowledge exchange efforts undertaken by regional actors, such as the Network of Networks. Of course, no forum would be complete without the opportunity to connect with colleagues, old and new, and I plan to try some of the networking opportunities afforded by the virtual platform, which will include networking “tables” and a virtual happy hour and exhibition hall. I’m excited to be a part of what will certainly be a memorable experience and hear what trends will carry us forward into 2021.

Written by Steve Ollis

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