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Digital Health: The COVID-19 Pandemic Could Be the Kickstarter We Needed

The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic is weighing heavily on us all: hundreds of thousands of lives lost, the psychological toll of lockdowns, and global economic disruption that is adversely impacting innumerable people and livelihoods around the world.

And yet, there are still opportunities for positive outcomes from this pandemic.  These will allow us to be better prepared for the next big global healthcare crisis and help to futureproof our healthcare systems. 


Scientists and healthcare professionals have been working around the clock to understand how the coronavirus harms humans and how they can better treat patients. As with every large disease outbreak, the biggest problems have been testing, access to care and lack of data. With healthcare systems stretched to breaking point and suspected patients isolated or quarantined in many countries, digital tools have come to the fore in helping to address these issues. Most existing digital health solutions are designed to tackle non-communicable diseases. Nonetheless, in a world of quarantines and severely restricted medical access, widespread smartphone ownership makes it possible to spread health information, promote greater acceptance of telemedicine and actively use digital healthcare solutions.


The coronavirus has fast-tracked the digital transformation of healthcare. We must now make sure that we “don’t let a good crisis go to waste”. We have learned four key digital health lessons during this pandemic and should apply them to shape the future of healthcare and public health policy for the better.
 

  1. Interoperability of data: Any big health crisis can best be tackled by analysing its underlying data – from how a disease spreads to how to improve patient care. However, many of the world’s healthcare systems are still in their digital infancy. As we have seen during COVID-19, healthcare systems across Asia Pacific and around the world are using numerous formats, standards and platforms to capture data, which makes it a huge challenge for scientists to gain insights from this rich resource of medical data. Enhancing interoperability of data – within countries, across regions and globally - will be instrumental in shaping future healthcare systems.
     
  2. Data security: The security and confidentiality of health data is a fundamental patient right. It underpins public trust in healthcare professionals and health systems. Without this, digital solutions will not find widespread public acceptance if patients are concerned about possible exposure of their medical records through data breaches. Data security must therefore be a key consideration when promoting data interoperability. Whenever a data set has to be translated or transferred into another system, the process opens up potential data vulnerabilities. Security and interoperability are intrinsically linked.
     
  3. Equal access to health innovation: We must work hard to make sure that these digital technologies don’t open up yet another, deeper digital divide. It took our world decades and the rapid evolution of mobile devices and technologies to bridge the gap between digital haves and have-nots. We must make sure that this does not happen with digital healthcare – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because the world cannot afford any data blindspots during this and future pandemics. 
     
  4. Build trust in digital health: COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief that some cultures and societies are more accepting of the privacy implications of digital technologies than others, for example in contact tracing. The public needs to understand that choices have to be made to balance individual privacy concerns and the need to contain disease outbreaks so that we can save lives. To build trust and understanding, governments and authorities have to be open and transparent about how digital technologies help to keep us and our loved ones safe. Without good communication and explanation, the positive impact of digital solutions will be blunted by fake news and disinformation.


During this pandemic, we have seen an enormous global willingness among the scientific and medical communities to share knowledge and data. The severity of the pandemic has resulted in greater public acceptance of digital health options. A door has been opened to promoting wider applications of digital innovations and securely sharing data to future proof our healthcare systems.  While it is unlikely the door will fully shut again because of the “new normal” created by this ongoing pandemic, it is now up to our stakeholder community to build on this in a scalable, sustainable way.


In 2020, we are still at the beginning of this global digital health journey. Everyone is at relatively the same starting place in defining how to safeguard and promote digital health technologies. We should not let the huge human and economic costs of this pandemic go to waste. Now is our opportunity to create the global regulatory frameworks that ensure data interoperability, data security, equal access to digital health innovation, and build trust in a data-driven future. 


Professor John Lim is a member of the expert advisory panel for Roche's FutureProofing Healthcare initiative. The views expressed here are his own.

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