Reflections from the 2017 Global Digital Health Forum

The Global Digital Health Forum (GDHF) provides a great opportunity for digital health practitioners, ministry officials, and program experts to come together. As the Program Officer for JSI’s Applied Technology Center, I think about digital health every day, but rarely get to see so many practitioners in one place. At this year’s forum, I was pleased to see colleagues and partners celebrating progress in digital health and hear them asking the necessary questions that will create effective, context-appropriate, and sustainable solutions.

The forum brought together JSI staff from across the globe. I took advantage of having them all under one roof to discuss their thoughts on the forum and the future of digital health. Here are the key takeaways:

1) The Forum provides a unique opportunity for all the stakeholders in digital health to discuss critical ideas in the field and for JSI to share our experience.

The Forum is the right place to bring ministry officials together with donors and digital health practitioners so that technology can be effectively deployedincreasing the effectiveness of scarce health resources and thereby improving the quality of life for people around the globe. Digital improvements from artificial intelligence to supply chain improvements to a host of mobile-based solutions help to save lives. Period. – Jonathan Metzger, Director, Applied Technology Center

The conference was well organized. It was an eye-opener for me that there are a lot of opportunities for JSI to showcase what we’ve done globally from domain-specific system implementation(s) to countrywide cross-domain health information exchange implementation(s). – Alpha Nsaghurwe, Senior Technical Advisor

2) The forum allowed us to thoughtfully consider the context and purpose of the technology we’re using.

Unless we think about the interoperability and integration of global digital platforms up front, organizations and countries will suffer tech debtthat is, they will pay for it on the back end. People will not use it, countries will not finance it, and the tool will be limited in its capacity to solve data issues. – Nancy Brady, Technical Advisor

On the first day of the plenary at the 2017 GDHF, the panelists stressed that “technology is just a tool, unless it is used correctly and willingly, it doesn’t get us very far.” Tech people need to understand the importance of users’ involvement in the process of technology solutions to health. The technological solution may not always necessarily be advanced as far as it is user-centered, usable, and effective. As another panelist said, “sometimes the best way to implement technology is not to implement technology.” – Fekadu Wannaw, IT Lead/ Deputy Director, Ethiopia Data Use Partnership

3) Presentations at the forum were on a wide spectrum in the field of digital health, ranging from cases of interoperability to questions of open source.

Dr. Boonchai from Thailand gave a fantastic presentation of the Thai experience of establishing an interoperable health information system. He stressed that a critical factor in their success to date was the launch of a national ID, supported by a digital platform, that ensures unique identifiers for all Thai citizens.This was outside the purview of the health sector but has helped them not only achieve broad health information system interoperability, but also universal health coverage. Thailand is a model for many other countries. Their story is available here Chris Wright, Practice Lead, Data Visibility & Use

While most of us can agree that this “open source movement” is a great movement, a limitation for country’s health programs is how much time and manpower must be invested to maintain these types of systems. Open source tools often take more effort to get going and to maintain. What initially seems like a good idea because it appears “free” may have hidden costs that are not visible upfront. – Jennifer Duong, GIS Senior Officer

4) The forum inspired important reflections on the progress and future of digital health.

In the past few years, the GDHF has moved through multiple phasesfirst focused on proof of concept, then pilots, and in recent years a heavy focus on scale. It was refreshing this year to see some reflection on how difficult scale is to achieve and the necessary groundwork that needs to be accomplished before tackling scale. The variety of tools presented at the forum that are now available to implementers and country partners to plan, standardize, assess, and integrate various digital health tools is impressive (possibly overwhelming). I hope we, as a community, can figure out how to make sure they reach the hands of those who need them when they need them. – Leona Rosenblum, Deputy Director, Applied Technology Center

Attending the GDHF and various side meetings this week, I was struck by how the field has really matured in the last few years. A large number of toolkits, frameworks, and models (18 by my count) were presented. This should serve to help us all repeat best practices, avoid common mistakes, and better serve the countries we work with. The challenge now is to hold ourselves accountable to using these and to continue sharing these far and wide. – Steve Ollis, Senior Digital Health Advisor

JSI staff made 12 presentations at the forum. We were grateful for the opportunity to share our work on health information systems, interactive dashboards, interoperability, and data visualization and mapping.

Here are a few examples of what others said about JSI at #GDHF2017:

I look  forward to more connections and learnings at future digital health events!

*Are you interested in learning more about digital health and what JSI is doing? Contact the Applied Technology Center to get connected to the right people.

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