Creating our digital future by building on the past

Over the past two years, the world changed irrevocably by learning how to live with the COVID-19 pandemic. We have reckoned with weaknesses in our public health systems. We have tested the limits of medical science in search of new vaccines and treatments. And we have leaned into virtual connections when in-person connections became impossible. As a result, our lives — and our health services — look different today. The pandemic has made it clear: the future of health is in the digital age. 

The digital transformation of health systems has been decades in the making. Since before the first feature phone, digital technologies have helped create stronger, more effective, more accessible health services. Today, there are countless apps that connect individuals with medical providers and services. Medical records are available at the click of a button and diagnoses are routinely made online. Governments have also looked toward digital tools and approaches to streamline medical supply chains, strengthen health system reporting, and enhance the skills of health workers.

The pandemic has made it clear: the future of health is in the digital age.

Since the early 2000s, digital health has been a priority for many multilateral fora and organizations. The World Health Organization passed its first resolution on digital health at the 2005 World Health Assembly, followed by a resolution on global digital health in 2018, and a global strategy on digital health in 2020. The G20 has championed digital health since the 2010s, with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s G20 Presidency launching the first G20 Digital Health Taskforce through the endorsement of G20 health ministers. With the creation of this taskforce, international collaboration on leveraging digital health interventions, addressing challenges in access to foundational requirements and supporting policymaking have been addressed at the highest levels of policymaking.

Beyond multilateral and national initiatives, many funders and philanthropists around the world have invested in digital health systems and related infrastructure of all types. This leadership catalyzed the digital transformation of health systems around the world and the expansion of digitally-enabled health services to more individuals and communities.  

The emphasis on digital health has accelerated during the pandemic, resulting in new initiatives designed to apply digital tools and data to COVID-19 response as well as prevent future epidemics. The World Health Organization launched the WHO Berlin Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence. The European Union’s European Health Emergency preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), the United Kingdom’s Global Pandemic Radar and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Pandemic Prevention Institute are all designed to advance the use of digital technologies and data to detect, prevent and respond to future health emergencies. These initiatives reinforce the importance of — and progress toward — creating a shared platform for disease surveillance, data-driven action in public health and cross-country collaboration. 

Digital technologies have helped create stronger, more effective, more accessible health services.

As health ministers from across the European Union gather for a ministerial conference tomorrow under the auspices of the French European Union Council Presidency, we are heartened to see digital health among its highest priorities. 

Discussions such as today’s side session endorsed by the French EU Council Presidency event “Beyond COVID-19: A multi-sectoral approach to accelerating digital health transformation in Europe” organized by The G20 Health and Development Partnership and its partners brought stakeholders together to find solutions and learn from each others’ best practices to advance the digital health transformation. We must continue advancing the integration of digital tools and approaches into health systems — and European countries such as France continue to lead the way. 

However, as we look forward, we must remember the rich learnings and commitments already made by the global community. 

The Lancet and Financial Times Commission on Governing Health Futures 2030 report reminds us about these commitments already made by the global health community, based on recommendations and ideas for how the world can invest in and advance digital transformation:

  • The global community must acknowledge digital transformation as a determinant of health and take concrete steps to strengthen the digital public infrastructure needed to ensure everyone, everywhere has access to digitally-enabled health services.
  • We must design stronger trust architectures that balance the benefits of sharing health-related data with the need to protect individual data rights.
  • Governments must address the enabling environment by building the political will, health workforce, systems and policies required to unlock the full potential of digital technologies.

We also have strong commitments such as the Riyadh Declaration on Digital Health, which was an outcome of the Saudi G20 Presidency. The global community should be tracking progress against these commitments and compel countries to action and accountability. An action plan is needed to fulfil these commitments through a public forum in which to share progress. Greater focus is needed for how the world will pay for digital transformation in a way that promotes equity and impact. And any new commitments and declarations should build on what we already have.

We must foster innovation, not just in our technology, but in partnerships.

While it is important to hold governments accountable for progress made, it is equally critical that we shift from a supply-driven innovation and actively work with countries to unleash the missing competencies they need to promote their digital health agenda towards a more demand-driven innovation. 

There is more work to be done as governments, donors, the private sector, and multilateral organizations and their initiatives continue to build a legacy of collaboration and coordination. We must foster innovation, not just in our technology, but in partnerships. We must address pressing issues of digital security, ethics, governance, and equity. And we must look toward the future as we define the ‘new normal’ for public health. 

But as we build, let us recognize the opportunities that health in the digital age will play in transforming and advancing our health systems to fast-track our commitments aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Even though COVID-19 has set us back in achieving our global health targets, it has also reminded us how far we’ve come in using technology to promote health and well-being for all through partnerships.


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