Note: This page is intended to be viewed as part of a larger report.
> Return to Network of Global Agenda Councils 2011-2012 report

Harnessing the Transforming Power of Digital Health

Digital Health has the power to radically change the global health landscape – making it better and more efficient. Unfortunately, healthcare has been slow to adopt the use of information and communication technologies – digital health – and risks falling further behind. As a result, there has been a lack of productivity improvement in healthcare, which stands in stark contrast to robust growth in other sectors of the world economy.

The main objective of the Council is to explore and highlight opportunities to help drive forward the digital health agenda. By collaborating with the Forum and other Global Agenda Councils, we hope to benefit from cross-sector insights and shared best practice about how the potential of digital health can be realized.

Solutions are needed for myriad healthcare challenges, and digital health can have a positive impact. Especially alarming is the growing burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which account for about 80% of all deaths in the West and are rapidly increasing in developing countries. While we have improved our ability to prevent, diagnose, cure and manage many NCDs, significant challenges remain. The rising cost of healthcare is one of the consequences of the NCD epidemic.

A major challenge is the need to provide healthcare to those who already suffer from NCDs. At the same time, we must also work to prevent NCDs in the huge populations at risk of acquiring them. Achieving these goals requires fundamental improvements in how healthcare systems acquire and use health information. Better data management can be achieved through digital health.

Adopting digital health technologies can improve efficiency and outcomes. To further this case, the Council has identified several examples where digital health is already working. Four key recommendations have also been developed on how the World Economic Forum and its Partners can play a critical role in supporting the growth and take up of digital health across the world.

Proposed Definition of Digital Health

Digital health harnesses the transformational power of modern information and communication technologies for improving health and healthcare throughout the world.

Information is the lifeblood of health and healthcare. In caring for individual patients, managing healthcare systems, controlling and preventing NCDs or other epidemic illness, or conducting cutting-edge clinical research, we are only as good as the information we have about the health and healthcare of individuals and populations. Digital health releases the power of health-related data by applying the most advanced information and communication technologies to the collection, sharing and use of information that can improve health and healthcare.

Economic and Clinical Value of Digital Health

The economic and clinical value of digital health has been documented in several countries and by many health systems. The documented value is diverse: cost savings, improved health status, increased provider productivity, improved patient access to care and higher levels of care safety. The table at right summarizes important examples of cost savings achieved through the use of digital health.

Chart 1: Return on Investment from Digital Health as Experienced in Lombardy, Italy

Recommendations

The World Economic Forum can play an important role in advancing the ability of member countries to apply information and communication technologies to improve the health of their citizens and the productivity and effectiveness of their healthcare systems. Specifically, the Forum can help realize the benefits of digital health by facilitating international collaboration to address four substantive areas:

Establishing International Digital Standards

The development and alignment of standards are necessary to allow the exchange of health information between healthcare providers, public health organizations and consumers. The lack of common standards is a major barrier to using digital health to exchange health information. This exchange supports the provision of care to individuals (particularly in the management of chronic disease, which accounts for more than two-thirds of all medical costs in most nations of the world) and the ability of national health services to compare the efficiency and effectiveness of care delivery across countries.

Researchers must identify innovations and interventions that can improve the health of the public. They must demonstrate that data exchange can empower patients to participate and have a say in their own care. This can help develop the potential for people to self-manage chronic conditions.

Identification of Digital Health Investments with Best Economic Return

Identification of digital health investments that give the best clinical and economic return would acknowledge the differences in healthcare priorities that can exist between countries and help ensure that scarce digital health resources yield the best possible return in health improvement and healthcare savings around the world. The digital health dimension of proper data management should become a part of the total cost of health and care.

Good data management can drive down spending, as it reduces administration costs and errors. Using the best digital applications to properly manage healthcare information must become a priority if savings and outcomes are to improve.

Best Practice and Lesson Sharing across Digital Health Network

Stakeholder sharing across countries of similar and different stages of economic development can help overcome barriers to deployment and use of digital health. Over the years, many organizations and countries have implemented health information and communication technologies, with varying degrees of success. These lessons can help address challenges such as clinical adoption and use, implementation approaches and commercialization of technologies.

Issues such as process change within and between provider organizations; privacy and security management; governance of digital health networks; development of a digital health workforce; and the effectiveness of clinical decision support can also be shared.

Identification of Opportunities for International Personal and Health Data Sharing

Identification of cross-national opportunities to use (in a private and secure manner) non-traditional sources of information on the behaviour, attitudes and values of individuals and populations. These could include consumption, participation in leisure and economic activities, travel patterns, exposure to environmental influences – for the purpose of improving health and healthcare. There is a huge value to ensuring that all aspects of personal and health data are connected, as these are most valuable when they are integrated. Additionally, there is a need for a national debate on personal data to inform the public about the integration process and its benefits and risks.

Facilitating debate about data sharing can help build people’s trust by asking pertinent questions. Authorities can act to minimize risks, and confidence in secure and private data resources for health improvement can grow.

 By supporting the pursuit of these four areas, the Forum can play a critical role in ensuring that the healthcare sector takes full advantage of the transformational power of modern information and communication technologies. Such an advance could vastly improve the health of the world’s citizens, while easing economic burdens associated with skyrocketing healthcare expenditures.

The Council also considers it vital to identify areas where digital health offers the greatest improvement opportunities and then develop business cases to quantify this potential. The Council will also need to identify barriers to digital health that may be managed in part through international collaboration, and facilitate this critical work. In doing so, we will bear in mind that, while countries may start in different places because of their existing healthcare infrastructures, we all share a common goal – to improve the health of individuals and populations and the functioning of healthcare systems throughout the world.

Disclaimer

The opinions expressed here are those of the individual members of the Council and not of the World Economic Forum or any institutions to which they are affiliated.