HEALTH

Digital Health: access to technologies under discussion at G20

Brasil's Unified Health System is an example of how a country in the Global South contributes to the improvement of universal access and service quality for the population. The Brazilian G20 Presidency highlights telemedicine, data analysis, and equity in technological advances in health as challenges in the digital age.

06/03/2024 7:00 AM - Modified 18 days ago
The future of health under discussion at the G20. Credit: Getty Images

Brasil's Unified Health System (Sistema Único de Saúde - SUS) is the largest public health service in the world. It serves as a model for many nations, exemplifying the rational use of resources to attend to the population. A study released in April by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística - IBGE) shows that the country spends 9.7% of its GDP on health care. The US spends around 18%, offering access almost exclusively to those are insured while a considerable part of the population have no access to any assistance.

With the challenge of promoting equity and resilience in services, the G20 Health Working Group, chaired by Brasil, highlights the role of digital health, reflecting a global movement towards more dynamic and inclusive healthcare.

G20 member countries such as Australia, Canada, and Portugal (the latter as a guest), which also base their health care on primary assistance, have made significant progress in modernizing the network. The implementation of actions such as electronic medical records, for example, allows for efficient data regulation, processing, and production.

Health data protection is a common concern, requiring policies and robust regulation with cross-border effects to ensure patient privacy and information security. Equitable access to digital health services is still a challenge, especially for populations in rural areas, marginalized, or with limited access to technology. Ensuring interoperability between different digital health systems and establishing common data standards remains a challenge for information integration and exchange.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines Digital Health as "the application of Information Technologies and Communication to Health", including the skills and practices of this area of knowledge that "contribute to speeding up the flow of assistance, qualifying health teams, and making the flow of information for decision support in Health more effective, its complexity involving both clinical decision making, health surveillance, regulation, and health promotion, as well as management.”

Digital health actions include Telehealth, which allows remote medical consultations via video calls, text messages, and emails; electronic medical records, which is the digital version of the patient's medical history; and applications including artificial intelligence and analysis of large volumes of data with blockchain technology to guarantee the security and privacy of health data and facilitate safe sharing of information.

Increased access to medical care is revolutionizing the way medical services are accessed and delivered. The expansion of Telehealth, data integration, and the use of artificial intelligence are among the main trends shaping the future of healthcare. The infrastructure for storing, processing, and protecting data and for ensuring countries' access to technologies continue to be elements for discussion and action within the G20.

The Secretary for Information and Digital Health at the Brazilian Ministry of Health, Ana Estela Haddad, stressed the importance of bringing the Digital Health agenda to the forum's discussions. She highlighted the Brazilian Government’s launch of the SUS Digital program. "The three levels of the federation - states, municipalities, and the Union - are mobilized to digitally transform the SUS," explained the Secretary, explaining that this is a process that is mobilizing the entire country.

International Experience

Australia is recognized for its advanced digital health initiatives, including the successful implementation of electronic health records and Telehealth programs. The country explores technologies such as artificial intelligence and data analytics to improve healthcare and the efficiency of its system. According to the winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, Maria Ressa (who participated in a Digital Economy WG side event), the main challenge for countries and the international community is to establish regulations so that technology is not a threat and to ensure that community data belongs to the people and not to companies.

Canada invests in robust infrastructure to support digital health across the country, such as the use of interoperable electronic health records, which allows data to be accessed and shared throughout the public health system. The structure improves the monitoring and reporting of suspected and confirmed cases, the definition of best treatments and the development of applications that benefit the population, ensuring greater accessibility and efficiency in health services.

The European Union (EU) promotes the interoperability of digital health systems between its member countries and facilitates the secure sharing of patient information. The EU is focused on the regulation and protection of health data to guarantee the privacy and security of community members. A guest of the Brazilian G20 Presidency, Portugal is investing in digital solutions such as telemedicine and large-scale health data analysis. These initiatives are key for tackling health access challenges in remote areas.

Health data protection is a common concern, requiring policies and robust regulation with cross-border effects to ensure patient privacy and information security. Equitable access to digital health services is still a challenge, especially for populations in rural areas, marginalized, or with limited access to technology. Ensuring interoperability between different digital health systems and establishing common data standards remains a challenge for information integration and exchange.

Transforming Brazilian Healthcare

With 5,564 municipalities signed up, the SUS Digital is driving the digital transformation of the Brazilian health system. The initiative expands citizens' access to health services through technology and promotes a more integrated and efficient approach to health care. The program also covers data monitoring and evaluation, information systems, platforms, and application development.

Professionals communicate via the Telehealth platform and can exchange technical information regarding assistance. ''Small municipalities (and there are many in Brasil) depend on specialized services. A person seen in one location can be diagnosed by a specialist in another municipality and the family doctor can request support from a specific specialty in another hub," explains the coordinator for the Dissemination and Integration of Data and Information at the Brazilian Ministry of Health, Tiago Bahia.

The Ministry of Health offers a technological environment where professionals interact, mediated by video or audio, to clarify the patient's clinical issues. According to Bahia, the process prevents unnecessary expenses "because it avoids the need for people to go from one city to another, seeking clinical clarification on a journey that is neither easy nor comfortable for the patient and can be costly for the municipality".

Bahia highlighted that Brasil's universal health system provides assistance to the country's 200 million inhabitants, an experience that enables the country to talk about the issue at the G20. "Brazil is continental in dimensions, with a high level of complexity, characteristics that represent a degree of inequality observed in several countries worldwide. Our experience shows that we have learned how to organize health actions and services. The SUS is an asset that can serve as a reference for other countries," he argues.

In this sense, increasing access to healthcare represents not only a technological advance, but also an opportunity to positively transform the lives of billions of people around the world. Through the digital health transformation discussions at the G20 discussions, participants had the opportunity to share experiences and challenges in search for more resilient, sustainable, and inclusive health systems.

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