Harnessing Digital Health Innovations

img_7301The 3rd annual Global Digital Health Forum was held December 13-14, 2016 in the Washington, DC area. With a theme of “Harnessing Digital Health Innovations,” the Global Digital Health Forum was designed to highlight the growth seen in digital health over the last several years and look towards the future of digital health.

Participants spent two days attending panel presentations, poster sessions and fireside chats; participating in numerous interactive sessions designed to build skills and capacity; and enjoying hands-on opportunities to get experience with the latest and most innovative digital health applications. With such an varied agenda, each participant left the Global Digital Health Forum with their own key takeaways and highlights.

The future of digital health

img_7302The Global Digital Health Forum opened with a forward-thinking plenary, as panelists Adele Waugaman from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Marty Gross of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Mark Allen of Merck for Mothers discussed where they see the future of digital health. Panelists offered a wide-range of expectations, from investments in regional efforts, the need to focus on building capacity of front-line health workers, the importance of the Principles for Digital Development and the need to improve connectivity for both digital health as well as broader humanitarian efforts. Ultimately, they “placed their bets” on three predictions of where global digital health will be in five years: the creation of an “investable industry”, donor coordination enabling country-level ownership and pathfinder countries taking a leadership role.

Data visualization as a storytelling tool


Mandy Dube emphasizes the critical role data visualization can play.

Data visualization isn’t a new technique and numerous sessions talked about different use cases of data visualization, but among the most compelling was Telling Stories with Data Visualization. Beyond the standard use of data visualization to enhance data and inform decision making, panelists focused on using data visualization as a catalyst to get users to own the data and use it, describing storytelling through data visualization as a strategic business communication tool. “A story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: our hearts,” quoted Mandy Dube from BID Initiative Zambia. “Data can persuade but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.”

The importance and challenges of health system interoperability

Hermes Sotter Rulagirwa from the Tanzania Ministry of Health shared experience designing a technology-enabled national health information system – with over 120 systems!

Hermes Sotter Rulagirwa from the Tanzania Ministry of Health shared experience designing a technology-enabled national health information system – with over 120 sub-systems!

The ability of health information systems to work together in order to improve health outcomes is crucial as we explore more effective and efficient opportunities to use data to advance global health. Panelists shared lessons learned and systems developed to help enable interoperability with existing national eHealth and digital health systems.

OpenHIE, a mission-driven community of practice, seeks to solve these challenges by enabling large scale health information interoperability and offering standards-based approaches and reference technologies. A Country Connectathon brought OpenHIE alive, using an interactive activity to demonstrate the interoperability of an immunization registry and the benefits realized.

Learning from failure to focus on the user

With focus most often on touting our successes, offering transparency into failures takes courage but is important to ensure we don’t continue making the same mistakes. And furthermore, it keeps us moving forward – as Chauncy Mauluka from the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs Malawi noted, “If you don’t fail, you’re not doing anything new.” Evaluating lessons learned from programs such as MOTECH in Ghana and to an SMS-based antenatal care implementation in Nigeria, panelists offered insight into why digital health implementations didn’t work and what they learned for the future.

Participants learning to build empathy through human-centered design.

Participants learning to build empathy through human-centered design.

While program and technology failures occurred for numerous reasons, many of the failures discussed recognized the lack of consideration of the user in the design phase, bringing us back to the need to incorporate user-centered design. Several interactive skill-building workshops on human- and user-centered design ensured participants came away with a renewed recognition of its importance and the practical skills needed for implementation.

Closing the last-mile connectivity gap

The Global Digital Health Forum closed with another forward-thinking plenary, as Larry Alder from Google, Jackie Chang from Facebook, Paul Garnett from Microsoft’s Affordable Access Initiative, and Lauren Reed from Qualcomm Wireless Reach offered insights into their innovative work to facilitate last-mile connectivity. From balloons to drones to TV white space, new technologies and techniques are being used to expand connectivity, improve its efficiency and ensure its affordability. This expanded connectivity will have significant impacts on the health sector, from ensuring those delivering healthcare at the front line have the ability to quickly diagnose and deliver healthcare to enabling machine learning and artificial intelligence to be applied to health issues.

Google's Project Loon uses high-altitude balloons to provide Internet access to rural and remote areas.

Google’s Project Loon uses high-altitude balloons to provide Internet access to rural and remote areas.

But all panelists agreed on the biggest pain point: governance!

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