Exclusive: Inside the World Health Organisation’s vision for Digital Health

By Yun Xuan Poon

Interview with Bernardo Mariano Junior, Chief Information Officer, World Health Organisation.

Disney’s ‘Big Hero 6’ stars a loveable healthcare robot who listens to the sound of human distress and provides personalised care. ‘Baymax’ may not be real yet, but we’re already starting to see hints of AI in healthcare - with hospitals predicting bottlenecks and patient readmissions.

As Covid-19 tore through hospitals worldwide, healthcare is shifting to digital to cope with the increased demand for medical attention. But moving healthcare online brings a unique set of challenges.

Bernardo Mariano Junior, Chief Information Officer at the World Health Organisation (WHO), shares how WHO will use AR to train healthcare workers for the pandemic, and how AI is helping researchers cut through fake news.

Equipping Covid frontliners

WHO has created an app that will use AR to train frontliners all around the world. A virtual instructor will teach health workers the proper techniques and sequence for putting on and taking off personal protective equipment as if they were in the same room. “The science of adult learning indicates that immersive technologies like this improve retention and learning outcomes,” Mariano says.

Virtual training aside, the WHO Academy mobile learning app pulls together pandemic-related information and training tools to keep healthcare frontliners informed and safe. This is crucial, as knowledge on Covid-19 doubles every two weeks, Mariano shares. The app is available in seven languages, and reached more than 200 countries just three months after its launch.

Early Warning Systems

WHO is also leading the development of an early warning system for public health threats, known as the Epidemic Intelligence from Open Sources initiative. Global public health institutions are working together to comb through publicly available information for warning signs. This initiative will use AI to determine how credible the information is from its tone and writing style.

The issue of information overload will stay with us even beyond this pandemic. “We expect that countries will have to battle several concurrent infodemics in the future,” Mariano says. In July this year, WHO brought together experts on data science, media, and human-centered design to discuss how to better manage the overwhelming waves of information that occur in a public health crisis.

A global digital health standard

The healthcare sector needs to consider how to use health data responsibly while enabling better services. WHO is calling for a new collaborative and patient-centric approach, and “standard, agreed-upon metrics” for implementing tech, Mariano says. “Digital health, unlike the traditional health sector, operates in a multi-sector ecosystem,” he adds.
WHO will bring together the public and private sectors, academia, and health institutions to help build a sustainable digital health ecosystem. It has also proposed basic guidelines for how data should be used and shared in digital health interventions through its Global Digital Health Strategy.

Building countries’ digital maturity

WHO will help countries that are less digitally mature implement effective healthtech. “Some countries implement solutions that are not sustainable due to the lack of appropriate infrastructure or appropriate governance, limiting the efficacy of the solutions,” Mariano shares.

WHO’s Digital Clearinghouse website aims to help countries adopt the right digital tools for them. The platform curates a list of potential tools, assessed by WHO and a panel of independent experts, that can easily be integrated with existing systems.

Countries can browse the list to understand the costs and technical specifications each tool requires, so they can decide if they have the resources needed. For instance, one tool uses a smartphone app and social media to train healthcare workers. It doesn’t require connectivity or complex tech, so it can be used in areas with little access to other devices.
“The current crisis has demonstrated the importance of digital readiness,” says Mariano. Covid-19 has left our hospitals, economies and societies battered and bruised, but there remains hope in the way it is teaching us to build a more resilient healthcare system.