Global, International

Feature: exploring health tech across Europe

Health ministers and delegates from Europe’s 53 Member States recently agreed to adopt the European Union’s first-ever digital health action plan, described by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “an ambitious agenda that will leverage digital transformation in Europe and central Asia with the aim of improving people’s health and wellbeing”.

In September 2022, at the 72nd WHO Regional Committee for Europe, a resolution was agreed recognising the “critical role” and potential of digital tools in health and care, with an eye to build on the lessons learned from the pandemic.

Noting that digital health is among the four flagship areas in the WHO European Programme of Work 2020-2025, WHO has stated: “The new action plan is a concrete step towards making the EPW a reality by leveraging digital tools to advance universal health coverage, protect people from health emergencies, and promote health and well-being in the Region.”

The action plan has been developed following consultations with partners and the 53 Member States, taking into consideration their priorities, needs, challenges and issues with access to digital health health services.

Dr Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat, Director of the Division of Country Health Policies and Systems at WHO/Europe, commented: “WHO/Europe is here to support countries as they leverage the use of digital tools in an inclusive and transparent way, while also protecting people’s privacy and specific needs. The digital literacy of all users should be a key component of any successful digital health strategy. Together with governments in our Region, we will work on solutions that put the needs of patients and health workers at the centre.”

In this feature we examine the contents of the new action plan and what it means for countries across Europe.

Regional digital health action plan for the WHO European Region 2023–2030

The overall vision of the plan is to “improve health outcomes for everyone, everywhere, by accelerating the development and adoption of appropriate, accessible, scalable and sustainable person-centric digital health solutions to prevent, detect and respond to epidemics and pandemics, and developing infrastructure and applications that enable countries to use health data to promote health and wellbeing”.

Five guiding principles have been set in place to orient the action plan towards “the appropriate and sustainable adoption of digital health solutions within the context of national health sectors and health and digital transformation strategies. Those principles are:

  • Place the individual at the centre of trustworthy care delivered digitally; successful uptake of digital technologies in health requires public trust in the technologies and the protection of their data.
  • Understand health system challenges, and acknowledge the needs and expectations of citizens and health workers; digital technologies can make a significant contribution to aiding healthcare, but inappropriate use can mean that value is not recognised, particularly if innovation is not aligned with national priorities or the deployment of the technology does not take into account how patients and workers want to use them.
  • Recognise the need for policy decision-making based on data, evidence and lessons learned whilst allowing for adaptation and innovation; a comprehensive evidence base will ensure that digital technologies contribute effectively to health outcomes whilst minimising potential risks.
  • Leverage digital transformation to reimagine the future of health systems; with countries seeking to build more resilient health systems during recovery from the pandemic, national plans and agendas are being reviewed and it is timely to work with countries to ensure that the innovation agenda leaves no-one behind.
  • Recognise that institutionalisation of digital health requires long-term commitment and an integrated approach; the action plan acknowledges the need for leadership and commitment from countries to achieve this transformation.

The plan identifies four strategic priorities, aimed at achieving the health-related Sustainable Development Goals, the WHO European Programme of Work for 2020–2025, the WHO Thirteenth General Programme of Work for 2019–2025, and the operationalisation of the WHO Global Strategy on Digital Health 2020–2025.

Priority one: “setting norms, developing evidence-based technical guidance and formulating direction to support decision-making in digital health”

Key focuses in this area will be on promoting commitment to and awareness of digital health by sharing evidence and good practice; conducting research and collecting available evidence on good practices in developing, deploying, implementing and using digital technology in the health sector; and guiding the development and adoption of digital technologies that facilitate the application of digital health to European health priorities.

Illustrative actions for this priority across 2022-2023 include developing a digital health strategic resource kit to highlight the elements required to deliver successful digital transformation in the health sector; establishing a research agenda to prioritise health system needs; developing and/or updating core technical guidance in priority digital health areas; and developing capacity-building plans to promote and support digital transition in different health areas.

At country level, it is expected that this work will provide more information and context on the national health system’s needs and priorities, which will be able to inform decision-making.

Priority two: “enhancing country capacities to better govern digital transformation in the health sector and advance digital health literacy”

In this area, focus will be on supporting the enhancement or development of national digital health strategies and frameworks to achieve national health goals; supporting countries’ capacities to better govern digital transformation in this sector; increasing their capacities and foundations along with their abilities to identify and align solutions; strengthening health information systems and health data governance; and developing awareness and practical guidance with regards to cybersecurity. In addition, focus will be placed on fostering innovation on predictive analytics for better health through big data and artificial intelligence (AI), and strengthening digital literacy skills in the general population.

Illustrative actions include developing guidance to support the development of digital health foundations, procurement and enhancement of governance structures and mechanisms on digital health; promoting and contributing to the assessment of infrastructural needs and reviews of national laws to drive successful transformation; and assessing health information systems and their governance to strengthen capacity to collect, analyse, integrate and use health information and data. Other actions include developing a European health data governance framework, addressing the ‘infodemic’ (too much information in a disease outbreak, often false or misleading); strengthening capacity to leverage the full potential of big data and AI, and identifying the core competencies of digital health literacy in the health workforce, along with developing a framework to assess digital health literacy skills in the population.

The expected impacts at country level include providing support and expert advice to strengthen procurement and governance; tailoring technical assistance in adopting digital health solutions to a country’s needs; assessing national health information systems and data governance frameworks to enhance use of health data; strengthening efforts to develop a roadmap for full implementation of health data standards for data interoperability; and developing capacity based on country-specific contexts for planning and implementing infodemic management. Alongside this, it is expected that the Winter School of Impact Training for Big Data in Healthcare will provide capacity-building to leverage the potential of big data and AI, a core competency framework of digital skills for the health workforce will be developed and made available at national level, and a standardised approach will be proposed for measuring digital health literacy skills.

Priority three: “building networks and promoting dialogue and knowledge exchange to facilitate interaction between partners, stakeholders and the wider public to steer the agenda for innovation in digital health”

Here, the plan sets out a need to focus on facilitating advocacy and promoting interregional, international and multisectoral collaboration. Alongside this, the focus will be on promoting and facilitating the dissemination and exchange of good practices and lessons learned, and establishing a platform “for non-State actors to better align technology ideation with health system bottlenecks”.

Illustrative actions include analysing the landscape of digital health networks and cross-sectoral partnerships; promoting alignment with the European Union and other international organisations to leverage the potential and expertise of regional and international partners; establishing a digital health network in the region; developing a knowledge-sharing methodology and building a good practice repository; and establishing a digital health partnership council.

At country level, it is expected that visibility of national digital health networks and cross-sectoral partnerships will be increased; international coordination and cooperation will be enhanced; knowledge exchange will support learning from others; and an independent forum for Member States will be established to increase understanding of available technologies and implementation approaches.

Priority four: “conducting horizon-scanning and landscape analysis to identify solutions that are patient-centred and can be scaled up at country or regional level to help shape public health and health systems in the digital era”

Key focuses will be on monitoring development and trends in emerging digital solutions; ensuring that a people-centred approach is considered to build trust and facilitate adoption; strengthening gender equality and health equity approaches to promote digital inclusivity; enhancing development of digital approaches for population health management; and facilitating implementation, evaluation, and scaling up of digital technologies in Member State health sectors.

The illustrative actions laid out in the plan include developing a measurement framework to monitor digital health in the Region, updating or developing country profiles or case studies on digital health, and developing a catalogue of business cases for national investment in infrastructure and technologies. Additionally, opportunities can be identified for engaging professional and patient associations in digital health development; promoting engagement of end users and beneficiary populations; and improving disease prevention and management.

With regards to the impact at country level, the plan notes that a standardised approach for monitoring could be proposed, and the country profiles and case studies can be used to facilitate regional comparability. Approaches can be identified to empower end users and beneficiary populations, and technical support can be provided to develop business cases for national investment in digital infrastructure and technologies.

Speaking on digital health’s potential to help governments and people across the Region, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, commented: “Digital health should be seen as an enabler to achieve health goals, and not as the solution itself for health problems or needs. To be meaningful and really promote better health, digital tools need good governance, proper legislation, and policies that promote the healthy use of these tools while providing the people who use them – health workers and patients – with the training and support they need to make the best of them.”

Here at HTN we will be placing focus on international health tech in the coming weeks and month through HTN Global – keep an eye on our website for more news and to stay up-to-date with health tech from across the globe.

[The regional digital health action plan is cited as follows: Regional Committee for Europe, 72nd session. (‎2022)‎. Seventy-second Regional Committee for Europe: Tel Aviv, 12–14 September 2022: Regional digital health action plan for the WHO European Region 2023–2030. World Health Organization. Regional Office for Europe.]