DIGITAL HEALTH DIVIDE: Only 1 in 2 countries in Europe and Central Asia have policies to improve digital health literacy, leaving millions behind

DIGITAL HEALTH DIVIDE: Only 1 in 2 countries in Europe and Central Asia have policies to improve digital health literacy, leaving millions behind

Landmark WHO/Europe report calls for urgent investment, innovation, and inclusion to reap the rewards digital health has to offer

Porto, Portugal – 5 September 2023

The adoption of digital solutions in healthcare has increased across the WHO European Region in recent years, changing the way patients receive care at primary care facilities, hospitals and their homes. Digital solutions are transforming the way health care professionals diagnose and treat conditions ranging from cancer to diabetes and mental health. Now, countries need to step up investments in digital health technologies and platforms to expand access to digital health for all.

A new report, Digital Health in the European Region: the ongoing journey to commitment and transformation, being launched today in Porto, Portugal, at the Second WHO/Europe Symposium on the Future of Health Systems in a Digital Era, covers all 53 WHO/Europe Member States in Europe and Central Asia. While in many countries the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the creation and use of digital health tools and policies in response to lockdowns and social distancing, including telemedicine and user-friendly health apps, the report underscores there is still much work to be done.

The two-day gathering, co-hosted by the Portuguese Ministry of Health, brings together more than 500 participants – including government representatives, digital health experts, civil society organizations and other stakeholders – to better understand and discuss how countries and the industry can work together to address the existing gaps in digital health. With the report, WHO/Europe aims to maximise the positive aspects of rapidly evolving technology, including artificial intelligence (AI), while mitigating against potential risks and negative impacts associated with these important innovations.

Digital health divide

A key risk is the digital health divide being created because of uneven deployment and uptake of digital solutions. This means that millions of people regionwide are still unable to benefit from digital health technology. This inequity urgently needs to be addressed through targeted investment in technology and by building skills and capacities of health providers so that all people can both access and use digital health technology confidently, particularly those most likely to benefit.

“It is a sad irony that people with limited or no digital skills are often the ones who stand to gain the most from digital health tools and interventions – like older persons or rural communities. Addressing this imbalance is necessary for the digital transformation of the health sector,” said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “It’s clear that digital health is the present and future of our health systems, but just as with the adoption of any new technology, there are normally winners and losers. That’s why it’s all the more critical that with digital health, a flagship of the WHO European Programme of Work, we ensure everyone wins, everyone benefits, and no one is left behind.”

The WHO/Europe analysis shows that the vast majority of countries in the Region, 44, have a national digital health strategy. Importantly, all 53 Member States have legislation safeguarding the privacy of personal data.

But the report also highlights significant gaps and areas for improvement:

  • Only 19 countries have developed guidance on how to evaluate digital health interventions, which is vital to ensure they are safe and effective;
  • Just over half the countries in the region have developed policies for digital health literacy and implemented a digital inclusion plan;
  • 30 countries have introduced legislation to support telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • Many countries still lack a dedicated entity responsible for oversight of mobile health (mHealth) apps in terms of quality, safety, and reliability, with just 15% reporting evaluations of government-sponsored mHealth programmes;
  • Slightly more than half of the countries have developed a data strategy regulating the use of Big Data and advanced analytics in the health sector.

“We find ourselves at an exciting moment, the intersection of health, well-being, and technology, where digital tools and healthcare meet,” said Dr Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat, WHO/Europe’s Director for Country Health Policies and Systems. “Our report clearly shows both our progress and where we now need to focus our attention: on making sure people can trust digital health tools, and that everyone, everywhere, can access them equally. This requires a particular focus on women and girls who are, in many societies, often excluded when it comes to accessing the latest advances in technology. Closing the digital skills gender gap is critical to leverage the potential health benefits such technologies can bring for women and girls, and through them their communities, and wider society.

The road to digital health transformation

The report emphasises three top recommendations as pre-requisites for countries to strengthen health systems by improving digital health solutions:

  • Provide access to reliable, low-cost broadband for every household and every community;
  • Ensure health data are safe and secure to help build and maintain trust in digital health tools and interventions;
  • Digital health tools, including electronic patient records, need to be inter-operable within and between countries.

“The European Region can – and should – be a leader in digital health,” concluded Dr Kluge. “Our report shows the Region is starting from a strong position, though the health sector is still a long way behind other sectors. In many countries, digital health programmes have so far developed on an ad-hoc basis and this needs to change. To realise the full potential of digital health, it needs to be seen as a strategic long-term investment rather than an add-on or a luxury for the few. This calls for political will at the highest levels of government and health, to ensure optimal investments in digital health infrastructure of the future now, rather than later. We have exciting, life-changing opportunities before us, underpinned by the principles of equity and health for all.”



Additional findings from the new report on digital health in the WHO European Region:           

The WHO/Europe analysis shows the vast majority of 53 Member States in Europe & Central Asia have: 

  • national digital health strategy or plan (83%; 44 out of 53 responding countries); use some form of shared Electronic Health Records (87%, 45 out of 52 responding countries); report the use of teleradiology (84%; 43 out of 51 responding countries) and telemedicine (77%; 39 out of 51 responding countries); support at least one mobile health programme (91%; 38 out of 42 responding countries); and provide digital health training for health workers (71%; 29 out of 41 responding countries).
  • All 53 Member States have legislation safeguarding the privacy of personal data.

Second WHO Symposium on Digital Health in Porto, Portugal:

  • Together with the Portuguese Ministry of Health, WHO/Europe is co-hosting the Second WHO Symposium on the Future of Digital Health Systems in the European Region on 5–6 September, where the report’s findings will be further presented and analysed.
  • Shaping the future of digital health in the WHO European region, this symposium is a pivotal gathering point attracting a diverse range of participants and experts from government representatives, key thought leaders, policy experts, academics, health-care workers, civil society representatives, professional organizations, and other partners to help rethink our shared digital health future.
  • It will give policy-makers and digital health leaders the opportunity for frank and open discussions on the most pressing health issues in the European Region and provide practical advice and recommendations on how to use digital technologies as part of the solution, from harnessing digital tools in combating diseases—both communicable and non-communicable—to the transformative potential of AI and telehealth.

Further reading:

For further information or to arrange an interview kindly contact:

Ramy Srour               Bhanu Bhatnagar                  WHO/Europe Press Office    

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