Can digital tools and technologies really serve to improve human health and healthcare systems? What factors contribute to the achievement of good results and equity in access to services? These and other issues were the focus of the third and final debate in the Sant Pau Dialogue series “Health and Society,” held at the Art Nouveau Site on the 10th of November.
In this session, moderated by Carme Carrion, Deputy Research Director of Health Studies at the Open University of Catalonia, three experts from the sectors of medicine, health system management, digital entrepreneurship, and cooperation offered contrasting experiences and opinions on the meaning of digital health and its role in society. The participants in the meeting were Manel Balcells, chairman of the board of trustees of the Santa Creu i Sant Pau Hospital Healthcare Management Foundation; Antoni Dedeu, Senior Expert at the World Health Organization European Office for Primary Healthcare, and Cristian Pascual, President of the Barcelona Health Hub.
Despite a convergence of opinions regarding the possibility of improving the experience of professionals and users of health care services, the three experts shared different perspectives on the value and definition of digital health. According to Manel Balcells, digital tools and innovations will only be useful if they are implemented in the context of a healthcare model to guide their integration into the public health system. He also insisted that these technologies should “help us to make healthcare better, more affordable and equitable, thus improving people’s health.” Antoni Dedeu, referring to the Catalan translation of the English term, affirmed that “digital health goes far beyond the concept of eHealth, because it encompasses the experience of the end user.” He agreed on the importance of having a good healthcare model and added that the application of digital tools must be rooted in the context of each country and guided by a comprehensive and cross-cutting health strategy. Finally, Cristian Pascual pointed to the transformative power of digital solutions. “We will stop talking about digital health someday. Then we will talk only about health because the digital aspect will be integrated as one more common element of health management,” he explained.
With regard to the challenge of ensuring equitable access to services, all three participants agreed that the impact of new digital solutions will depend on how they are used. Other factors external to health systems must also be considered, for example, urban planning, poverty, quality and access to internet, among others. While warning that misuse would yield negative results, Cristian Pascual argued that digital tools can help overcome the enormous challenges that healthcare faces, thanks to their scalability, among other features. On the other hand, Antoni Dedeu affirmed that the objective and end user must be considered when innovating, ensuring inclusivity in the design process. He also declared that guaranteeing access to these tools is a political responsibility. Manel Balcells was of the opinion that it is necessary to define the future challenges of the health system and build a response with a wide array of solutions, including digital technologies.
The conversation continued with a call for more training and research in the field of digital health. According to Cristian Pascual, despite the extensive academic preparation of medical professionals, there are still some shortcomings in the training, especially with regard to future trends in this sector. Moreover, Pascual insisted on the need to validate technological solutions in the different stages of healthcare practice and pointed to efforts pioneered by the Barcelona Health Hub in collaboration with the Sant Pau Hospital and other entities. Antoni Dedeu agreed on the importance of generating evidence through research, and at the same time, he called for more research on the development of technological solutions. Postgraduate training, he pointed out, offers an opportunity to provide healthcare professionals with digital knowledge appropriate to the current context. In contrast, Manel Balcells suggested that English, entrepreneurship, community medicine, and other practical knowledge and skills for the future should also be introduced into the medical training. In terms of research, he once again stressed the identification of health challenges as the best way to focus specific studies.
Before concluding the discussion, participants offered a number of recommendations. Emphasizing the complexity of the public system in Catalonia, Manel Balcells suggested a transversal and participatory approach to integrate innovations into public healthcare institutions. Referring to the Health Advisory Council’s work on healthcare models, he stressed the importance of taking into account the unique characteristics of the Catalan system, as well as the population’s expectations and demands. In the same vein, Antoni Dedeu proposed that authorities develop a digital roadmap that will serve to advance a national health strategy. He also stressed the need to define a governance model and apply interconnectivity and interoperability standards for the flow of information. Recognizing the complexity and scale of the challenge, Cristian Pascual called for action: “We need to be brave and determined, but above all, we need to get started.”