COVID-19 has spurred online searches for consultations and diagnoses among medical practitioners and patients alike.
But with only about 51 per cent of the global population using the Internet, the risk of a digital gap further entrenching health inequity looms large.
At the same time, as technological change advances, the global health workforce must be equipped with new skills, ideally supported by policy makers who can understand and implement digital health strategies and infrastructure.
Mapping skill sets
A first logical step is to understand skill levels across different healthcare services.
“Lack of skills has been identified as a main barrier to the digital transition,” noted Dr Susan Teltscher, Head of ITU’s Capacity and Digital Skills Development Division, at a 25 April webinar on digital skills for e-health hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Mapping the skill sets required to upskill the workforce is fundamental to any digital health competency framework, said Hani Eskandar, Digital Services Senior Coordinator at ITU.
The Digital Health Leadership training course developed by ITU and WHO was designed to map and boost the digital skills of health leaders across the world.
The initiative aims to build communities of digital health experts, particularly in the Global South, who can spearhead innovations with an enhanced set of diverse and targeted digital skills.
Innovative teaching methods
Medical universities have also begun to incorporate digital tools and methods to train future healthcare professionals. Italy’s Humanitas University, for example, uses high-fidelity simulations to train its employees. “In this continuous process of medical education, the simulation method is applied to every single step,” said Professor Ana Carolina del Pozo.
Simulation activities help students acquire both hard technical skills and essential soft skills such as communication, leadership, teamwork and situational awareness.
Moreover, learning with the latest technology is not limited to trainees – even experienced specialists need to keep up with new techniques and devices, noted del Pozo.
When it comes to online education in digital health, learning styles can differ from person to person, with varying levels of connectivity, skill sets and cultural contexts to consider, noted Ariel Frankel, Director of Public Health at digital training firm TechChange. The company takes a human-centred approach to virtual learning, co-creating content with client communities and iterating constantly based on participant feedback.
Questions of ethics
Outside the virtual classroom, the use of digital health solutions raises ethical questions, pointed out Zohar Lederman, Emergency Medicine Physician at Hebrew University and Ben Gurion University in Israel. While artificial intelligence can lower the costs of healthcare, we should avoid calling technology “objective”, he posited, since the primary inputs fed into a system come from humans.
The issue of misdiagnosis poses another challenge, Lederman added, questioning who bears responsibility for errors potentially caused by digital health services.
Such questions demonstrate the need to invest in data scientists and digital literacy, especially in the fields of AI and machine learning, said Derrick Muneene, Unit Head of the Capacity Building and Collaboration Team of the Digital Health and Innovation Department at WHO. “We want to ensure that the people themselves have the necessary skills to be able to safely use digital devices.”
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, AI helps not only to address health inequities, but also to mitigate health workforce shortages. Another key area for digital investment could be to tackle the so-called “infodemics” created by the spread of medical misinformation, he said.
Last year, the World Health Organization launched a Global Strategy on Digital Health, which “promises to position health in the digital age.”
The strategy aims to promote global collaboration on national digital health plans, strengthen mechanisms that govern digital health investments, and advocate for people-centred health services.
Muneene emphasized the need to leave no-one behind, including frontline workers responsible for providing healthcare services.
Bernardo Mariano Junior, Director of the Department of Digital Health and Innovation and the Chief Information Officer at WHO, said digital health skills must cover four Ps: policy makers, practitioners, patients, and people.
Patients should be able to rate the efficacy and quality of healthcare delivered through digital health devices, Junior said, reiterating the need to include the 3.7 billion people worldwide who are not yet using the Internet.
A fifth P, partnerships, is also key, since they “create the capacity not just to interact with or use digital technology, but also to access it.”