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Countries worldwide share perspectives on pandemic-era digital innovation

The COVID-19 crisis has shown in no uncertain terms the value and criticality of having a digitised and connected healthcare ecosystem: one that enables easy access to near-real-data, supports the demands of virtual care, prioritises patient experience and protects patient data.

Every nation’s experience with this pandemic has been different – just as their own efforts to advance and innovate their information and technology infrastructures have their own unique imperatives.

But certain best practices are universal, and by sharing perspectives internationally, countries around the world are benefiting from others’ hard-won experience.

Today, as part of the  HIMSS & Health 2.0 European Digital Conference, healthcare leaders from Australia, India and the UK compared notes about their own respective experiences building digital maturity as they simultaneously responded to a global pandemic.

During the session, A New Era Digital Maturity: International Views from the Top, Meredith Makeham, associate dean for community and primary healthcare at the University of Sydney; Lav Agarwal, joint secretary in the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare at the Indian Administrative Service; and Dr Simon Eccles, chief clinical information officer for Health and Social Care at NHS England discussed the value of such cross-nation collaboration.

Specifically, they touted the value of groups such as the Global Digital Health Partnership, which convenes government agencies from countries and territories, along with the World Health Organisation, to enable more effective rollouts and improvements in digital health services.

The pandemic has put a spotlight on the “pressing need to accelerate the digital maturity of our health systems to continue improving the health and wellbeing of our citizens,” according to the session, and that depends on international cooperation.

Tim Kelsey, senior vice president of HIMSS Analytics International, convened Makeham, Agarwal and Eccles to discuss how that collaboration is “driving and accelerating digital health,” and how sharing between governments is helping agencies and health ministries better understand “what does and doesn’t work” and – crucially – “how do we maintain the momentum, toward broader adoption of digital health?”

Agarwal said the key is to dive into the details of interoperability specifications, for instance. Beyond enabling governments to “share international best practices,” he said, groups like the GDHP can help with “coordination and implementation of global information standards. And also to work toward accelerated adoption of innovative technologies.”

Makeham said Australia has taken lessons from other countries not just about digital health strategy, but also its response to the pandemic itself.

“We’ve had the benefit of being somewhat behind the rest of the world and we’ve been able to learn from other countries across the world about what’s working and what’s not and try to quickly get reforms into place,” she said.

She also noted that COVID-19 “has forced us to accelerate some of those digital innovations which we were working on and were coming … but I don’t think those innovations would have happened so quickly.”

Telehealth, for instance, has seen huge growth in Australia, just as it has in many other countries around the world.

“There’s no guidebook for this,” said Makeham about the challenges of innovating during a pandemic. “People are trying to do the best they can. And that’s why organisations like GDHP are so important. It’s a wonderful example of an open, transparent sharing of government knowledge and insights about what’s good for patient safety, patient empowerment and ensuring health for all.”

For his part, Eccles echoed her comments, noting that COVID-19 has forced a “a different approach to digital,” at NHS, “and at a pace we had never previously considered.”

Understanding that “we had limited time to act,” as lockdowns went into place and the novel coronavirus spread, the UK saw a rapid and massive scale up of online care in response to COVID-19, he said.

Pre-pandemic, 83% of primary care was face-to-face, he explained. During its height, that number was 10% – and the rest was digital.

“We did it,” said Eccles, relievedly, of that massive and fast-paced transformation. “Which for anyone experienced in digital transformation projects seems bordering on insane. It was brilliant. And the degree of buy-in to the need to radically change how people work was just fantastic.”

Now, with the stage set to build on that progress, and further foreground patient empowerment and self-service, he said.

“That degree of system and service transformation would have taken us years, previously.”

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