Digital health: WHO launches guidelines and pens plan for technical advisory group

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

© Getty Images / CentralITAlliance
© Getty Images / CentralITAlliance
The World Health Organization (WHO) is 'cautiously optimistic' evidence-based digital strategies can augment quality and reach of healthcare, including nutrition, and is calling on experts to form a technical advisory group.

In March this year, WHO established a Digital Health department and last month released its first set of guidelines on digital health interventions​, following two years of evidence review and consultations. The organization now wants to establish a multi-disciplinary technical advisory group and roster of experts in various areas related to digital health, including artificial intelligence; virtual and augmented reality; biomedical innovation; and wearable technologies. WHO is taking submissions and nominations of experts until June 2​, with a view to holding the first technical group meeting in September.

An 'effective mechanism'

WHO said the goal of the advisory group was to provide “high-level, global strategic advice and support”​ to the Secretariat on its digital health vision and strategy, as well as review the future landscape and advise on “possible effective new areas for intervention”.

“Members of the roster and the advisory group must be acknowledged experts with an outstanding record of achievements in their own field and an understanding of and proven interest in digital health technologies,”​ WHO said.

Bernardo Mariano Júnior, chief information officer at WHO, told NutraIngredients-LATAM that a roster of experts was an “effective mechanism”​ to garner the best global advice and expertise, particularly given the subject matter.

“This approach is particularly effective in the area of digital health because of the pace at which the field advances, as well as the breadth of skills required to cover the digital health landscape,” ​Júnior said.

“...The advisory group is being set up for two years. We will [then] assess what is needed going forward after the first two years and determine our next steps.”

Guidelines to 'augment' quality and coverage of healthcare

In the meantime, the guidelines launched last month recommended ways digital health technologies could be used with maximum effect to improve health, including digital tracking of health status and services; targeted client communication and decision support via mobile devices; and digital training for health workers, among others.

Garrett Livingston Mehl, scientist at WHO who led development of the guidelines, said the aim had been to recommend different uses of digital health technologies that were“intended to augment the quality, coverage or accessibility of different health interventions”.

“...For the area of nutrition, one can imagine there are specific interventions that WHO recommends – a health balanced diet and things like that – so, the use of digital is to, on the one hand, ensure that people in the population are adequately informed about what a diet looks like and how they can ensure they're informed about it and access information about different foods when they need to. And secondly, ensuring a health provider has access to adequate information and is able to follow up with people over time and able to make the correct decisions using digital tools,”​ Mehl said.

“These [guidelines] are all about augmenting the performance of the health system and identifying where digital can overcome and address any performance gaps.”

'Decision support' around nutrition in LATAM

Mehl said one area of promise for digital health that could be relevant for the nutritional industry was decision support.

“There are specific types of approaches in digital where there is an adequate evidence base to be able to say decision support is an effective strategy for ensuring health providers are helping their clients to make the right choices and decisions around nutrition and health promotion.”

“...I think increasingly you're going to see patients being in a position to want, themselves, to gain access to information about things they're interested in, and that of course relates to nutrition. And then they'll want to ensure health providers are able to have access to all the best evidence-based approaches to ensure they're providing the right information and treatment,” ​he said.

This was highly relevant for Latin America, he said, where digital already had a high penetration among the general population and within health systems. Because the infrastructure was already there, he said there was “a huge opportunity” ​for digital health strategies in the region.

According to Global Market Insights (GMI), Latin America was also the fastest-growing clinical nutrition market in the world​, set to grow at a CAGR of more than 8.1% over the next six years.

“We're cautiously optimistic and we look forward to more evidence that can drive the use of digital in that region and in those health areas, but more broadly as well,” ​Mehl said.

Nutrigenomics future?

At the beginning of 2019, Nordic Group announced its partnership with Vitage Lab in Mexico City to distribute its DNAlife genetic testing platform and oversee the training of medical practitioners on how to use it​. The platform uses a buccal swab of a person's DNA to analyze health management, dietary disposition, athletic performance and drug metabolism.

Chris Moore, MD of Nordic Group, previously told this site individualized healthcare was the future and so implementing genetics was a “proactive strategy”.

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