Global Digital Health Forum 2021: Digital transformation

December 6th, 2021 | Viewpoint


Katerina Pattee, the Center for Digital Health’s new program officer, interviewed Christina Villella, the Global Digital Health Network’s co-chair, on the upcoming Global Digital Health Forum and integrating an equity lens into her work. 

Katerina: Why did the Global Digital Health Network (GDHN) choose digital transformation as the theme for this year’s forum? 

Christina: This year, we took a new approach to planning our theme for the Forum. In the past, our advisory council has been our primary planning body. This year we opened the conversation up, meeting with donors and sponsors from the previous forum as well as converting our April GDHN meeting to a brainstorming session with whoever registered. The “digital transformation” theme emerged from that larger conversation, reflecting the natural progression of where the field is going. The GDHN is not just focusing on the latest solution for challenge X in the health system. Health information systems are becoming digitally enabled with consumer-based software, and people are thinking more holistically about digital health and what it means. 

And we have to talk about digital transformation overall, because digital health depends on broader digital resources and systems to be successful. For example, if we have electronic medical records to capture patient information at community health centers and health facilities, but what we don’t have is the Internet or maybe the computer structure in place, then our digital health intervention is going to fail. And solving it requires stakeholders beyond the health sector, it requires true digital transformation. 

Katerina: That makes a lot of sense. You’ve been the forum co-chair for two years now. How has the field of digital health changed over your tenure?

Christina: Conversations are focusing increasingly on the sustainability of these systems and the long-term planning and structures that need to be in place. Previously, we thought about sustainability as the capacity of the country ministries or staff or organizations to manage and run these systems. But now, when we think about capacity and sustainability, I see the field shifting to thinking more broadly and asking if the government is even responsible for managing these systems, or are public-private entities going to do that?  

Some countries are also looking at institutionalizing the ability to generate capacity, by which I mean building local expertise to do this work. People are developing curricula for graduate and undergraduate programs. There are global leadership programs for digital health for people who are already working in governance of these systems. People are asking “What do we really mean by capacity?” and realizing that it’s more than, “Do you know how to run a system? Can you manage it?” Of course those are important skills, but there are broader questions and components to consider. 

I think another way the field has grown is seeing digital health as a whole, not a series of piecemeal solutions (e.g., one for a logistics system, one for electronic medical records). Countries are moving from having an overall digital health vision or strategy to building out the enterprise architecture and I see more and more people and countries looking for frameworks. This is an important step for ensuring that this work is ready for the long haul. We can’t have siloed systems and they can’t be developed separately. There has to be the thought of how they’re all going to come together. 

Katerina: Absolutely. How have you seen the network change in the past two years? 

Christina: I’ve definitely seen the network grow and I’ve seen more participation from our members in various aspects of the network. Our listserv has grown exponentially, even in the number of posts by members asking for best practices and seeking global resources. There is increasing recognition that we’re all in this together and we’re all going through the same challenges. 

Of course, I have also seen growth in our annual forum, where once a year everyone can come together. Now that we’ve gone virtualthat’s another change for the networkwe will probably always offer a hybrid option when there are virtual and in-person components so that we can have greater inclusion of our membership from around the globe. Seven hundred people attended our last in-person forum; last year we had more than 2,000 virtual attendees. Of course, there are aspects of in-person that we miss and hope to get back to, but we want to continue the expanded global dialogue by having virtual components as well. 

Katerina: You note the importance of inclusion. How is the Global Digital Health Network integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion into the forum this year? 

Christina: Ensuring that all of our members are well represented in the governance structures that manage the network, and as participants in our programming has been a key priority for our leadership team over the last two years. To that end, this year invited abstract submissions in French and Spanish in addition to English and made sure that the abstract platform itself was translated into those languages to reduce barriers to abstract submission. We also encouraged our reviewers to take a critical lens at the diversity and inclusion of the abstracts themselves; who was presenting and did s/he represent where the work was being done? 

We also asked the reviewers to look at diversity, equity, and inclusion of the intervention itself, to see, for example, if it was really improving equity of access to health care. We made that part of the scoring criteria, which was a big deal. We are working out where we can offer simultaneous audio translation into other languages and expanding our resources to offer captioning in some sessions. We have also been trying to be inclusive through a programming perspective; we try to offer many different sessions at many different times. We’re obviously unable to cover all time zones, but we have tried to expand the hours of the day that we’re offering programming. Of course, most sessions will be recorded so that they can be accessed later. 

Katerina: Finally, what would you say to a person who is deciding whether or not to attend the forum? 

Christina: Definitely come. Thinking about my first forum, I didn’t know much about digital health. Attending the GDHF opened my eyes to the breadth of the work that was being done in this space and the organizations and people who are doing it. The forum is an opportunity to meet all kinds of people, from implementing partners to donors to tech entrepreneurs to MOH officials to researchers. Everyone who’s working in digital health, many of them are planning to attend or have attended the forum. It’s just a great way to learn about what has happened and the current state of digital health, and to join the community. 

Obviously, it’s a little harder to meet people virtually, but we have some fun networking sessions planned to get to know people and take a break from the conference routine. It’s tempting in the virtual world to try to keep your meetings while you attend the conference, but I encourage people to block their calendars so they can immerse themselves in the forum. I usually find I come from these conferences more refreshed and invigorated for my next year of digital health work. 


The Global Digital Health Forum is December 68, 2021, and will feature members from the Center for Digital Health and other JSI staff. Go to for more information and to register.

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