Digital health blueprints for a postpandemic world

9 Dec 2021 12:50h - 13:50h

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Organised at the initiative of civil society organisations, including the People’s Health Movement, Medicus Mundi International – Network Health for All, and the Society for International Development, the session aims on the one hand to take stock of the unprecedented repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic on health digitalisation across the globe, and on the other hand, it draws the lessons from the latest developments by sketching a possible global framework for digital health in the post-pandemic era.

With COVID-19, digital health systems and medical data have taken the world by storm, yet it is unclear who is driving this extraordinary acceleration. Most importantly, people and societies have welcomed these changes with scepticism and concern over data governance and their democratic rights with respect to data protection and confidentiality.

In the words of Ms Nicoletta Dentico (Senior Policy Analyst, Society for International Development, Italy), digitalisation has always been multistakeholder-driven, with shared roles between governments, the private sector, and civil society. However, the pandemic has proved a radical game changer, notably with respect to the need for urgent governments’ regulatory measures and to people’s (i.e., patients’) claims over data ownership.

The session highlighted examples from India, with Ms Anita Gurumurthy (IT for Change), from Austria, presented by Ms Barbara Prainsack (University of Vienna), and from Korea, presented by Mr Junho Jung (People’s Health Movement).

While the three speakers stressed the major changes witnessed in the wake of COVID-19, the three experiences also show important differences. In Europe, as seen in Austria and Italy, the health care systems were not digital at all prior to the pandemic. The transition to digital was operated rapidly and the public opinion has met this development with raising scepticism, with the majority voicing concerns of over surveillance and consequently rejecting the anti-COVID applications. While medical systems have adapted to online consultations and digital prescriptions, the storage and sharing of medical data remains an important issue.

The Indian example presented a similar case scenario, whereby, on the one hand, enormous amounts of data collected by the central government provided scientific insights and helped in the decision-making process. On the other hand, however, the value gained in this way was counterbalanced by the government falling short of building clarity and trust around the data protection regulatory measures.

In South Korea, the governmental myhealthway application, while providing effective data collection and outbreak control, as well as an integrated platform for patients’ medical records, has also raised serious concerns about privacy and surveillance.

Overall, as explained by Dentico, the rapid health digitalisation around the world poses serious societal concerns regarding the ownership and proper use of data, as well as the fear that huge investments in digital health may lead to an out-of-control acceleration of digital health, taking over the human medical care, as if this could remedy to the failure of public health systems prior to the pandemic.

The ensuing discussion and final conclusions of the session resulted in pinpointing what could represent a valid post-COVID-19 digital health blueprint, or the global framework for health digitalisation. As highlighted by Gurumurthy, it is paramount to consider the data as a public good, protected by the rights of privacy and subject to the data owner’s informed consent. Reference was made to the final statement of the WHO Health Data Governance Summit of June and September 2021.

Finally, in the words of Prainsack, the post-pandemic digital health blueprint necessarily entails a trustworthy governance framework that ensures strong collective responsibility and protects data from commercial purposes. Such a framework must exist to save lives and answer health needs and should therefore be used primarily for the common good, to abolish inequalities and poverty, which are at the root of public health policies. Indeed, if the world is to rise stronger from the pandemic, health digitalisation should contribute to collectively mitigating data misuse and protecting the rights of people and society. In this respect, the COVID-19 pandemic is seen as an eye-opener as to who owns and who controls sensitive data, and it reaffirms the crucial role of civil society in the health data policy debate.

By Elena Ursache

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